Click on photos to enlarge.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

John Tyler Portraits

President John Tyler, 1859, G.P.A. Healy, official White House portrait. 
During his lifetime, his opponents referred to President John Tyler as "His Accidency." He was the first Vice-President to ascend to the highest office in the land through the death of a sitting president--William Henry Harrison. Harrison had served for only about a month before dying of pneumonia. For a time many in Congress preferred to refer to him as "acting president." Born in 1790, today, March 29, 2016, is John Tyler's 226th birthday. For those unfamiliar with the 44-name-long list of American Presidents, John Tyler was number ten, and some might say one of the more "forgettable" of the lot. His official White House portrait by G.P.A. Healy (above) would certainly not put him in line to win any presidential beauty contest. Yet the presidency of John Tyler was not as inconsequential as some might think. At a time when this Republic was still relatively young, Tyler set several important precedents and ushered in what was then the largest chunk of land ever to join the union--the great state of Texas (up until then an independent nation).
The Whig candidates, 1839
Vice President, John Tyler
The Whig National Convention of 1839 was eerily like what we may see in July, 2016, as the Republican Party meets in Cleveland, Ohio, to nominate a presi-dential candidate. By the time the Whigs met in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that year, the United States was in the third year of a serious recession, dubbed the Panic of 1837. President Van Buren's efforts to deal with the situation had been largely ineffectual, costing him public support. Moreover, the Democratic Party was so torn into factions that the head of the Whig ticket would likely be the next president. Harrison (above, center), Ken-tucky Senator, Henry Clay (above, left), and General Winfield Scott (above, right) all sought the nomination. Tyler attended the convention but was little more than a curious bystander among the Virginia delegation. He did nothing to aid his chances for even a second spot on the ticket. The convention deadlocked among the three main candidates, with Virginia voting for Clay. Many Northern Whigs opposed Clay. They showed the Virginians a letter written by Scott in which he apparently displayed abolitionist sentiments. The influential Virginia delegation then announced that Harrison was its second choice, causing most Scott supporters to abandon him in favor of Harrison, who gained the nomination.
President John Tyler, 1859,
G.P.A. Healy, National Portrait Gallery
The Vice-Presidential nomination was considered of little consequence. No president had ever failed to complete his elected term. Thus, not much attention was given to the choice. Tyler was a logical candidate--a Southern slave owner, he both balanced the ticket and calmed the fears of Southerners who felt Harrison might have abolitionist leanings. Tyler had been a vice-presidential candidate in 1836, thus having him on the ticket might win Virginia, the most populous state in the South. When Tyler's name was sub-mitted his home state of Virginia abstained from voting, yet he still received the need-ed majority. The party's famous campaign slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," says a lot about John Tyler's place on the ticket--an afterthought to win Virginia voters. Tyler's National Portrait Gallery image (left) is a somewhat cropped sec-ond version of Healy's earlier White House portrait (top). Harrison's death, a month into his presidency forever changed the heedless manner in which political parties were to choose presidential running mates.
Tyler arrived in Washington in the early morning hours of April 6, 1841. He was firmly resolved that he was, in name and fact, the President of the United States. Acting with determination, he had himself sworn in as president, without any qualifiers, in his hotel room, though he considered the presidential oath redundant to his oath as Vice-President. Nonetheless, he wished to put to rest any doubt over his accession. Immediately after his inauguration, Tyler called the Cabinet into session, having decided to retain its members. His Secretary of State, Daniel Webster informed him of Harrison's practice of making policy by a majority vote, fully expecting the new president to continue this practice. Astounded, Tyler immediately corrected them: 
"I beg your pardon, gentlemen; I am very glad to have in my Cabinet such able statesmen as you have proved yourselves to be. And I shall be pleased to avail myself of your counsel and advice. But I can never consent to being dictated to as to what I shall or shall not do. I, as president, shall be responsible for my administration. I hope to have your hearty co-operation in carrying out its measures. So long as you see fit to do this, I shall be glad to have you with me. When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted."
Take that, you Whigs!
Tyler was not really a Whig, or if so, he was but a recent convert. In essence his views were often diametrically opposed to those of the man he replaced. Though he was a strong states rights advocate he was often at odds with the Whigs in Congress. Twice he vetoed Henry Clay's pet bill for a national banking act. Following the second veto, Tyler's cabinet entered his office one by one and resigned—a move intended by Clay to force Tyler's resignation. The only exception was Daniel Webster, who remained to demonstrate his independence from Clay. The following day, when the President did not resign, the Whigs expelled Tyler from the party. Tyler was castigated by Whig newspapers and received hundreds of letters threatening assassination. The Whigs in Congress were so mad at Tyler they refused to allocate funds for the repair of the White House, which had fallen into disrepair. Needless to say, they weren't in the mood to pay G.P.A. Healy to paint his portrait (top), which had to wait some fifteen years.
Tyler was the first President to be married while in office.
John Tyler, 1860-65
It didn’t get any better. Tyler couldn’t get any legislation passed. He couldn’t appoint judges. His wife, Letitia, died. And in 1844, while he and his Cabinet were cruising the Potomac on the U.S.S. Princeton, a cannon exploded on deck and killed his Secretary of State, Secretary of Navy, and dozens more. I'll spare you the gory details, but the traumatic event wiped out many high ranking members of government. Tyler was below deck at the time and unhurt by the explosion. Shortly thereafter, the Whigs in the House of Representatives initiated the first ever im-peachment proceedings against a president. Until the presidency of the Whigs' arch-enemy, Andrew Jackson, presidents rarely vetoed bills, and then, only on the grounds of their unconstitutionality. Tyler's actions op-posed the Whigs' thinking that the pres-idency should allow Congress to make decisions regarding policy. The Bill of im-peachment was deemed premature, tabled, and later rejected. Upon the death of his wife, Letitia, in September of 1842, his daughter-in-law, Priscilla Cooper Tyler, took on the duties as First Lady until Tyler became the first president in history to be married during his term in office. On June 26, 1844, Tyler married Julia Gardiner, then twenty-four years of age and some thirty years his junior. Tyler also owns the distinction of having fathered more children than any other American president. With his first wife, Letitia, he had eight children. Tyler's second marriage to Julia Gardiner produced seven more children.

Sherwood Forest Plantation. Charles City County, Virginia,
John Tyler sculpture, 2004,
Lee Leuning and Sherri Treeby

When Tyler's term ended in 1845, no one in Washington hated to see him go. John and Julia Tyler retired to their Sherwood Forest estate in Virginia (above) where the former president embraced the role of the plantation-owning, slave-owning farmer. His Whig neighbors mockingly made him "Overseer of Roads," a title which, to their dismay, he took seriously, often demanding their slaves for road work. Tyler withdrew from politics, his advice neither sought nor offered in the years leading up to the Civil War. However, on the eve of the war, Tyler re-entered public life as a participant in the Virginia Peace Conference held in Washington, D.C., as a last-ditch effort to prevent the war. The convention sought a compromise even as the Confederate Constitution was being drawn up in Montgomery, Alabama. Despite his leadership role, Tyler came to oppose the convention's final resolutions. He felt that they would do little to bring back the lower South and restore the Union. Throughout Tyler's life, he suffered from poor health. As he aged, he suffered more frequently from colds during the winter. In January, 1862, after complaining of chills and dizziness, he vomited and collapsed. He died shortly thereafter due to a stroke. Because of his allegiance to the Confederacy, Tyler's death was the only president in history not to be officially recognized in Washington. He had requested a simple burial, but instead, Confederate President Jefferson Davis devised a grand, political funeral, painting Tyler as a hero to the new nation. His coffin was draped with a Confederate flag, the only former president ever to be buried under a foreign flag.


No comments:

Post a Comment