Friday, March 15, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Ten, Hating Tyler Too

I mentioned last time that I felt this week's President under character review was the worst ever.

I admit part of this desire to rank John Tyler as the Worst Ever is to go against the status quo of the standard opinions of the established order.  I mean, everybody goes for the usual suspects like James Buchanan or Andrew Johnson or Herbert Hoover or Richard Nixon.  You'll ALWAYS see those guys somewhere near the Worst Ever.  You'll get the occasional crazy listing Chester A. Arthur as Worst Ever but it's usually some idiot who believes the Moon landings were faked.

So I focus on the lesser-known "mediocre" President types who didn't make much of a blip on the historical radar, into which you'll find the likes of Tyler.  One of the many "One-Termers", even though he's historically important by establishing a key Constitutional Precedent.

Tyler was the first Vice President to become President upon the death or departure of the sitting President.

This is a huge thing.  The Constitution does establish that a Vice President shall take on the duties of a President Who Has Passed On And Joined the Choir Invisible, but it didn't really clarify that the Veep becomes fully a President with all executive powers.  Nobody was really sure what do to when Harrison died in office.  There were suggestions - from the Cabinet Tyler inherited no less - that he be "Acting President" in title... which could have affected some of the official duties a President was/is expected to perform.

Tyler insisted that he was President.  The Cabinet - after consulting the Chief Justice - noted that by taking the Oath of Office Tyler could be accepted as President, so he did and they accepted and that established the precedent.  (It wasn't really legal, believe it or not, until the Twenty-Fifth Amendment passed almost 120 years later)

So that's pretty much the one good thing Tyler did in office.  Because from there on he turned out to be a disaster.

Let's pull back a bit to Andrew Jackson.  Arguably one of the most personally hated men to serve as President.  He was so hated that a political party formed in opposition to him: The Whigs.  I'm only half-joking here: while the Whigs were the successors to the Federalist Party's belief structure and geographic leanings - forming around naturally-shared beliefs about Unionism, business, and sport - they were mostly made up of politicians who had run-ins with Jackson and who realized that while bullets were useless against him (I AM NOT JOKING) rallying party opposition was still legal and possibly effective.

When Jackson's successor Van Buren felt the aftermath of Jackson's tenure - the Panic of 1837 - the Whigs had their chance, taking control of Congress by 1838 and then by 1840 running a popular figure like Harrison to a landslide victory over the Jackson Democrats.  Problem was this whole Vice President thing: by this point in American history it was necessary to balance "the ticket" between the chosen vote-getter (President) by adding a figure from the party's minority yet vital wing to fill the other half (Vice President).  For the most part a Vice Presidency is a thankless honor: you're not popular with the majority faction of your own party, you're probably personally hated by the Guy Above You, and your duties don't mesh with what the President gets out of his Cabinet buddies.

But sometimes this deal comes back to bite the party leaders in the ass: when the President dies/resigns/goes off to tour as an Elvis Impersonator, the Vice President gets promoted.  And the Veep is a guy coming from the faction of the party who's NOT in control: you're getting someone who barely supports the party line, and quite possibly someone who would go extremist on you in the worst way.

Tyler was the type who barely supported the Whig party line.  When he got into the White House it quickly became apparent that Tyler wasn't really a Whig at heart, he still thought very much like a Jacksonian Democrat.  It turned out that the one reason Tyler wasn't a Democrat was because he hated Jackson on a personal level: he liked the politics very much, thank you, he just hated the guy (in most respects I don't blame him).  Tyler hated Jackson... but wanted to BE Jackson.  A decent psychiatrist/historian would have a best-seller on their hands if they ever wrote a definitive book on this guy.

In fact, looking at Tyler's track record you'll find someone who was the antithesis to Whig ideology.  Where the Whigs were pro-Union, Tyler was pro-Secession/Nullification.  Where the Whigs were pro-National Bank, Tyler opposed it like Jackson would have.  Where the Whigs wanted tariffs to keep the Treasury solvent, Tyler would veto.

What happened was that the Whig party leadership - Henry Clay especially - thought two things: Tyler was one of them and that Tyler would be weak and malleable due to the circumstances surrounding his promotion.  The fact that he was viewed as "His Accidency" and not a full President.  But Tyler truly believed he was President and would not be cowed by Clay.  He was also, considering how much he mirrored Jackson in temperament and beliefs, very much an Active-Negative President.

The first veto - which came with the first bill, Clay's attempt to re-institute the National Bank - caught everyone off-guard.  When Tyler vetoed the same bill a second time, almost all of his Whig Cabinet resigned and he became the first President expelled from his own party.  None of that changed Tyler's Uncompromising nature.  That he failed to make deals with an opposition Congress should be no surprise.  That he became hated enough in his own right to be the first President to undergo an Impeachment vote in the House shouldn't be much of a surprise either: the vote didn't pass a simple majority anyway so the "honor" of being truly Impeached would have to wait a while longer.

I list Tyler as the Worst President for a few reasons, not a lot of them to do with his actual Presidency.  It has to do with his political stances on things like nullification and secession.  I'm also not a huge fan of his position on the annexation of Texas - a then-formed Republic out of its' rebellion against Mexico - because it became one more step and a pretty big step it was towards our Civil War.  Other politicians may have had a stronger hand in that effort - like the next guy on the list - but Tyler was a big proponent and it was in the final days of his administration that Texas merged with the United States... and that the issues with the Texas-Mexico border became an issue with the United States-Mexico border.  Thanks a bunch, Tyler, thanks a whole bunch.

One last thing: Tyler was a long-lived sonofabitch.  He lived long enough to support his home state of Virginia's decision to secede from the United States on the eve of Civil War.  And lived long enough to get voted into the Confederate Congress.  Of the histories of ex-Presidential behavior, few are as bitter and broken as Tyler's.  And there's my bias for you.

Next up: The Most Successful (Of Quantity But Not Much Quality) One-Termer Of All Time.

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