In 1840, Tyler was elected Vice President, William Henry Harrison, President. Harrison is infamous for having the shortest term of any President. He took the oath of office on March 4, 1841 and died on April 4, 1841. At 69, he was the oldest man elected President, a record he held until Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.
Harrison was the first President to die in office and his death precipitated a crisis: Was John Tyler now acting–President or President? Many wanted Tyler to be acting–President until a special election could be held. Harrison’s, now Tyler’s, cabinet believed that since he was acting–President, that every decision should be made by majority vote of the cabinet. Tyler’s reply completely caught them off guard: “I am very glad to have in my Cabinet such able statesmen as you,” Tyler told them. “But I can never consent to being dictated to as to what I shall or shall not do…I am the President…When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted.”
Tyler set the precedent that has been followed upon the death of every president since. He was fully President of the United States.
The plot thickens. The conflict with the cabinet was not over. In his four years as President, Tyler had more cabinet changes than any President before or since. Tyler came in as a Whig (political party), but as members of his cabinet resigned, he filled the positions with Democrats. As you can imagine, this did not go over well with the leadership of the Whig party. Tyler was expelled from the Whig party. A man without a party could hardly be re-elected and thus Tyler left the Presidency in 1845.
Tyler retired to private life in 1845, but the Whigs were a vindictive bunch.
Tyler’s public life seemingly behind him. “Everything he desired in the future was to have his motives and actions properly vindicated,” his son remembered. But his legacy would haunt him even in his secluded retirement, as “Nearly every neighbor, and most of his countrymen were Whigs and followers of Clay (Henry Clay), and who had learned to hate Tyler as a traitor, a renegade, and everything that was esteemed bad in their party creed.” Neighbors refused to visit him, a courtesy due even a stranger. One day the clerk of the court interrupted the isolation at Sherwood Forest to announce that Tyler’s neighbors had voted him overseer of roads. Even the newspapers noted that it had been done to insult Tyler, who would have to pay a fine if he declined, which they fully expected him to do. Instead, the former president expressed his honor at this favor, and promised to fulfill his duty as faithfully as he had all of his other offices.
His son noted, “Mr. Tyler commenced his duties with the same faithful purpose as had ever characterized him. The road being very undulating, he resolved to cut down the hills, fill up the ravines, and make it an example to the state. He summoned to all the hands in the township. Day by day he applied himself to his work, the law of Virginia specifying no limited time for working on the roads.” His one power to meet his responsibilities was the ability to requisition his neighbors’ slaves at his discretion. “The effect of his diligence was seen, not only on the road, but in the mournful silence that prevailed on the various plantations, which were chiefly owned by the Whigs.” When the harvest was ready to be picked, “The hands were all upon the road. The smiles that lately illuminated the countenances of the Whigs turned to dismay.” Finally, Tyler’s neighbors graced him with their presence at Sherwood Forest, commending his work and asking him to let someone else have a chance. Tyler declined, citing a solemn obligation to continue his duty.
And so it was John Tyler—as he had time and again before—who had the last laugh at the expense of his antagonists.1
- Sometimes getting your own way is a terrible thing (the Whigs who made Tyler overseer of roads).
- Seeking revenger (same Whigs) usually backfires.
- If you know something is yours (the Presidency) claim it and do not back down or let go.
- Know the law—it’s often on your side (the Constitution on the ascendancy of the Vice–President & the provisions for the overseer of roads).
1Excerpt From: Chris DeRose. “Presidents’ War.” iBooks.