Upon the death of Harrison only one month into his presidency, Tyler quickly took the oath of office and moved into the White House, thus setting a precedent that was later codified in 1967 with the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. At 51, he was the youngest President up to that time. Tyler stated to a friend that “I shall act upon the principles that I have all along espoused . . . derived from the teachings of Jefferson and Madison.” Henry Clay, the leader of the party, believed in a weak presidency and that Congress should control the country, guided by himself. With an inherited cabinet, committed to an agenda President Tyler would come to consider mostly unconstitutional, a clash between the new chief executive and his party proved inevitable.
John Tyler receives news of the death of William Henry Harrison
Over the course of his four-year presidency, the entire cabinet but one resigned, President Tyler vetoed a number of legislative enactments he deemed unconstitutional, becoming the first President to have his veto overridden, and he suffered the vilification of both the Whigs and Democrats, including former Presidents Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Nonetheless, he achieved several foreign policy triumphs and stewarded the addition of Texas to the Union.
Official White House portrait, 1859
When the country was sliding toward secession and war in 1860, the seventy-year-old Tyler searched desperately for a way to hold the Union together, for “war was too horrible and revolting to contemplate.” He called for a peace conference to be held in Washington, D.C. and his plan was endorsed by the Virginia legislature. All the states were invited to send commissioners. The peace convention was ignored by Congress. President Buchanan took no measures to ameliorate the situation, and the last chance for a peaceful resolution passed. Tyler advocated immediate secession of Virginia, though the state actually waited till the new President called for troops to invade the South.
1859 daguerreotype of John Tyler
President Tyler is heartily disliked by modern historians who consistently rank him in the top five least effective and weakest chief executives. He did not expand the powers of government, held to a strict construction of the Constitution and committed the now unpardonable sins of both owning slaves and serving in the Confederate government. To paraphrase the words of a recent historian of the presidency, “doctrinaire presidents create chaos, pragmatists accomplish things.”
President Tyler died of natural causes in the first few months of the War for Southern Independence, the last of the Virginia Presidents, and one of the most consistent advocates of the political philosophy of those architects of the Republic.