Unnoticed POTUS focuses on our most forgotten presidents, from Martin Van Buren to Benjamin Harrison and more. You might be surprised at how interesting some of these always-the-ignored, never-the-Rushmore’d presidents turn out to be, and as a bonus prize for sticking with us on our favorite co-bland-ers-in-chief, we’ll post a new POTUS-themed cocktail for you to try out each week. Today: His Accidency Unnoticed POTUS John Tyler.
So, what we’re finding here at History on the Rocks is that 1837 to 1845 was pretty much a Presidential black hole: we started with Martin Van Buren, who wasn’t all that great of a guy, continued with William Henry Harrison, who definitely wasn’t either, and we’re rounding off the 1840s with with our latest Unnoticed POTUS John Tyler, who ascended to the Presidency as a part of the country’s first constitutional crisis.
As we know, Harrison was the first President to die in office, succumbing to illness barely a month into his term. Not a huge cause for concern (minus, you know, the death of the leader)-- the Vice President is next in line, right? We’ve all seen the photo of LBJ getting sworn in. The problem? The authors of the Constitution didn’t exactly get specific when they were adding in that little detail. To cut a long story short, the original text of the Constitution said that the powers of the President would fall to the Vice-President, not necessarily that the Vice-President would actually become President. So when Harrison bit the dust, the cabinet convened immediately and decided that yep, this aristocrat from Virginia (aren’t they all?) was going to become only the Vice President acting as President.
But John Tyler had other ideas.
Before meeting with the cabinet, he declared himself President and coordinated his own swearing-in as President at his hotel. After the fact, he essentially brute-forced his way into ratification by Congress and became known by opponents as “His Accidency,” a nod both to the circumstances of his ascension to office and to what fellow politician Henry Clay called Tyler’s “regency” as President.
While Tyler remained President, it wasn’t for lack of trying by his opposition. True to the campaign slogan that had gotten Harrison elected and Tyler as an afterthought—“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!”--not even members of his own party were big fans of His Accidency. Barely six months passed before almost Tyler’s entire cabinet resigned on him. Two days later, his party flat-out excommunicated him--not that Tyler cared. He agreed to appear on Harrison’s ticket pretty much just for his shot at the White House, not because he actually agreed with the Whig Party platform. To put it bluntly, Tyler was a serious opportunist, but not a popular one. Other than the annexation of Texas, he didn’t accomplish much.
- Still, there’s still more to Tyler than the accident of his presidency: Tyler had fifteen children--the most of any President. What’s crazier? A few of his grandchildren are still alive. Seriously.
- If you’re scratching your head on that math, here’s how it works: Tyler’s first wife died in 1842, when he was 52. A few years later, while President, Tyler took a shine to a 20-year old socialite, Julia Gardiner. They went on to have seven children, the last of which was born in 1860, two years before Tyler's death. We here at History on the Rocks are pretty that sure if somebody had told Tyler about the “your age minus theirs, plus seven” rule, he wouldn’t have cared.
- The kicker? Julia Gardiner was not a big fan of Tyler, actually refusing his first proposal. It wasn’t until she and her father attended a reception on the U.S.S. Princeton that things turned around for Tyler--sort of. The Princeton had a new 27,000-pound cannon called the “Peacemaker” that the designer wanted to demonstrate for all of the bigwigs on board. So they fired two rounds, which went great. The third round? The gun literally exploded. The explosion killed several attendees, including Gardiner’s father, and during the ensuing ruckus, Tyler found Julia and carried her to safety. She agreed to marry him a short while later. Essentially, Tyler saw his chance with a traumatized twenty-year old and took it! The guys of Wedding Crashers would be proud.
- Tyler and Gardiner had seven kids, including a son born in 1853 named Lyon. Lyon also married twice and had children at the age of 71 and 75, both of whom are still living.
Sadly, it’s not all quirky trivia when it comes to Tyler. Remember the Presidential black hole? Yes, there’s a reason we’re including Tyler in the Terrible Trio. Namely, some organizations--like the Smithsonian--actually call him a traitor to his country. Why? Because he sided with the Confederacy.
Yeah, that Confederacy.
It wasn’t a big surprise. He owned slaves and actually personally oversaw their work, to the extent that political opponents--AKA, everyone--mocked him by calling him an “overseer.” You might recognize the term from its countless horrific portrayals in books and media: the role of the overseer, of course, was to punish slaves and bully them into working faster.
Tyler had also opposed the Missouri Compromise back when he was a U.S. Representative, and was so angry at Andrew Jackson’s efforts to ban slavery in states west of Missouri that he actually ragequit Congress when the Missouri Compromise passed.
So in all, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that when the political relations between the North and South came to a head, he promptly sided with the South. He even helped form the nascent Confederacy, and was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives as the war began. He ultimately died in early 1862 and remains the only president whose death the United States government refused to recognize or memorialize. Appropriately, his casket was draped in a Confederate flag. Good riddance, His Accidency.