The Last Time We Had an Insurrectionist President
Since he left office, former President Donald Trump has not receded into quiet retirement as most of his predecessors did. The activity and boisterousness with which he has continued to champion the Big Lie with which he incited the Jan. 6th insurrection bears comparison to only one other ex-president—one who also became president under a cloud of uncertainty, ignited calls for impeachment, alienated many both in opposition and within his own party, failed to win re-election, and fell into post-presidential ignominy: the tenth president, John Tyler.
Tyler has been the subject of relatively little attention from biographers. In the most recent C-SPAN survey of presidential historians, Tyler ranked among the worst presidents, coming in at 39th. Given his poor historical reputation, it is hardly surprising that few public buildings or geographic markers are named for him (Tyler, Texas and Tyler County, Texas being the best-known exceptions). The recent renaming of John Tyler Community College in Virginia to Brightpoint has sparked no noticeable outrage. If Tyler is remembered at all nowadays, it is most likely as the second half of the famously catchy 1840 campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” or for clickbait-worthy fact that he has a living grandson (another grandson, who bore a striking resemblance to him, passed away in 2020).
Tyler’s retirement years have not been the source of much scholarly interest. But given his role in the secession of Virginia and his support for the Confederacy, Tyler’s role as a seditious former president is worth another look.
Born in 1790 to one of Virginia’s oldest clans, John Tyler’s upbringing embodied many of the classic traits associated with the Southern gentry: wealth, land, honor, education, and slavery. The son of a Revolutionary War veteran and judge of a U.S. district court in Virginia, Tyler attended William and Mary before passing the bar. After barely one year of practicing law, Tyler turned to politics and successfully ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. Like most other Southern politicians of that day, Tyler resented banks, supported states’ rights, and remained dubious of federal power. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a governor of Virginia and U.S. senator.
With the rise of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic party in the 1820s and 1830s, Tyler struggled to find his place in the emerging political order. He had initially opposed Jackson in 1824, only to support him reluctantly in 1828. But Jackson’s actions as president only further validated Tyler’s distrust. As a Southerner, he was appalled by Jackson’s militant hostility toward South Carolina throughout the nullification crisis, and he viewed Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United States as an abuse of executive power. Such experiences led Tyler to break with the Democrats and make common cause with the emerging anti-Jacksonian alliance, the Whig party.
Because of his status as of prominent Democratic defector from the South, Tyler was twice nominated by the Whigs for the vice presidency. Led by William Henry Harrison, the elderly hero of the battle of Tippecanoe, Tyler and the Whigs unseated Martin Van Buren in 1840. Following Harrison’s sudden death a mere 31 days after his inauguration, Tyler was elevated to the presidency and found himself at odds with most of his Whig compatriots: After he vetoed a bill to establish a National Bank, his whole cabinet resigned (except for Daniel Webster) and the Whig party expelled him. Now a president without a party, Tyler continued to feud with Congress to the point that a faction of Whigs attempted to impeach him. Because of his unpopularity and the way in which he had become president, Tyler was often mockingly called “His Accidency.” When his term ended in 1845, he left office spurned and politically homeless.
Out of the public eye, Tyler spent his retirement attempting to repair his reputation, particularly in promoting himself as the progenitor of Texas annexation. But as the country drifted toward civil war over slavery, Tyler joined his fellow Southerners in decrying the rise of abolitionism. At the same time, though, he also expressed concern over Southern radicals who spoke of reopening the slave trade and breaking up the Union. Although initially hopeful for compromise, his pessimism grew with each passing election. Following James Buchanan’s pyrrhic victory over the anti-slavery Republican party in the election of 1856, Tyler remarked in an August 1860 letter to his son Robert that “the Country is undoubtedly in an alarming condition. . . . Let things result as they may, I fear that the great Republic has seen its best days.” The election of Abraham Lincoln, in Tyler’s mind, sealed the nation’s doom. Writing again to Robert in November 1860, Tyler lamented that “all is over and Lincoln elected. S. Carolina will secede.”
Though Tyler was horrified by Lincoln’s victory, he did not immediately join the cause of the secessionists. Yet secessionism did attract his sympathies: “sometimes,” he wrote a few days later in November 1860, “I think it would be better for all peaceably to separate.” Even so, he remained hopeful that the Union could be saved through more negotiations, and he proposed a convention of free and slave states to hash out a compromise. Although he presided over the Virginia Peace Conference, he fought for peace on the South’s terms and opposed all the conference’s resolutions. Despite his hopes, Tyler maintained that the South had “the right of Secession in the Constitution.” Tyler then joined the Virginia Secession Convention, voting in favor of quitting the Union. Before the convention, he raged against the “aggressions” of the Republican party, citing them as just cause for secession. Tyler then went on to link the struggle to create an independent slaveholding confederacy with “the cause of our forefathers in the Revolution of 1776.” In an April 1861 letter to his second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler, he triumphantly declared, “Virginia has severd her connexions with the Northern hive of abolitionists and takes her stand as a soveriegn and independant State.” Tyler was then unanimously elected to the Provisional Confederate Congress and later the Confederate House of Representatives.
Northern newspapers strategically contrasted Tyler’s disloyalty to the Union with the actions of the other living ex-presidents. The Washington Reporter remarked in 1861 that “while the despicable traitor, John Tyler, is playing a conspicuous part in the councils of the rebels, and strengthening their hands to the upmost of his mediocre abilities, behold the course of the other ex-Presidents of the United States!” Likewise, the Salem Observer observed that “of the five living ex-Presidents, four, viz: Van Buren, Fillmore, Buchannan, and Pierce, are for the Union and the Constitution, and one—the meanest of the lot—John Tyler, is a traitor.” In correspondence for the San Francisco Bulletin, a New Yorker pronounced, “Twice during his life thus far has John Tyler of Virginia proved himself an errant traitor. The first time he only betrayed his party. . . . The second time his country it is which he has betrayed.” Tyler’s bust was removed from the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.
On January 18, 1862, Tyler, age 71, died, mere months before the beginning of his service in the Confederate House of Representatives. Across the South, flags flew at half-staff, and tributes to Tyler filled the Southern press, most celebrating his contributions to the Confederacy and not his presidency. Buried not too far from James Monroe, Tyler’s coffin was draped in the flag of the Confederacy, which the Richmond Examiner described as “the flag of his country.”
By contrast, newspapers in the North celebrated Tyler’s passing. The New York Daily Herald closed its obituary with the remark that his death “will be hailed with satisfaction and his memory be marked in history as a worthy confrere of Arnold, Burr, and other rebels and traitors.” On a more somber note, the Lancaster Examiner noted that “in the history of the United States we trust that he alone will bear the wicked preeminence—that no one in time to come will dispute his claim to the title of our only Traitor-President.”
Unlike the death of former president Van Buren, Lincoln did not acknowledge the passing of Tyler. When Tyler’s plantation, Sherwood Forest, was sacked by Union soldiers, Tyler’s death mask was purposefully vandalized. Had he lived, President Andrew Johnson’s pardoning of the ex-Confederates would have included Tyler, but he instead died an enemy to the country over which he had once presided.
Whether and how Donald Trump thinks about his legacy is known only to him, but the rise and disgrace of John Tyler, the traitor-president, should serve as a warning about how insurrectionist presidents are remembered—in Tyler’s case, with disgrace at first, and then hardly at all.