In the fall of 1840, Americans went to the polls in record numbers to elect William Henry Harrison the nation’s first Whig president. Just a month after his inauguration, Harrison, a celebrated former Army general, congressman and U.S. senator, succumbed to pneumonia, making him the shortest-tenured president in the nation’s history, and his running mate, John Tyler, the first vice president to ascend to the highest office upon the incumbent’s death.
Tyler’s four years in the White House were stormy and, in the main, unsuccessful. He retired from public life in March 1845, reemerging just briefly to serve in the Confederate States Congress before his death in 1862.
On September 26, 2020, his grandson, Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr., an attorney and history professor, died at age 95 — some 180 years after the election that sent “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” to Washington.
Dr. Tyler, who earned his B.A. at the College of William & Mary, his law degree at the University of Virginia and his Ph.D. at Duke University, led a full and distinguished life. A naval officer and veteran of the Pacific theater during World War II, he was a long-tenured faculty member at The Citadel. But it is his living connection to that earlier age — to the famous Log Cabin campaign of 1840 — that resonates so strongly in these fraught political times. The historical gap between his grandfather, who was born during George Washington’s first term in office and who served as president some eight years before the introduction of the telegraph, and our own time is vast. Yet core elements of the political debates that consumed his grandfather’s generation remain salient today.
First, a word about the improbability of it all: President John Tyler’s first wife died a year and a half into his White House tenure. He married his second wife, Julia Gardiner, who was 30 years his junior, during his last year in office. Their fifth child, Lyon Sr., was born in 1853 and also remarried late in life, to Sue Ruffin, who was 35 years younger. That marriage produced Lyon, Jr. (born in 1925) and his brother, Harrison, who at age 92 is John Tyler’s last surviving grandchild.
William Henry Harrison and John Tyler represented the Whigs’ first great triumph against Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party. The Whig party was founded in explicit opposition to Jackson’s imperial style as president. They deplored his arrogation of executive authority, his habit of running roughshod over Congress and the courts, his demagogic style and hyperpartisanship. While committed to an extensive policy platform that included soft (that is, paper) money, federal financing of internal improvements such as roads, canals and bridges, and tariffs to promote the development of a mixed economy of farmers, manufacturers and merchants, above all Whigs hoped to cool the passions that Jackson had enflamed during his time in the White House (1829-1837) and curb the excesses of power that his successor, Martin Van Buren, had further advanced.
In his inaugural address — a long speech delivered on a bitter cold morning, without a coat, perhaps to counter charges that the 68-year-old president, whom Democrats mocked as “granny,” wasn’t up for the job — Harrison decried the prevailing “spirit of party” and scored those who, “in the name of democracy,” sowed division and corrupted American political institutions. His oration brimmed with classical references, but the target was clear: Jackson, a president who had bent norms and traditions so far that the United States now faced “a calamity so awful, not only to our country, but to the world.”
When Tyler assumed the presidency (he had to fight for the title — some elected officials and jurists believed he was merely the “acting president”), Whigs hoped he would advance their agenda. But Tyler was an ill fit. A committed states’ rights advocate from Virginia, he had joined the Whigs in opposition to Jackson’s authoritarian style, but he didn’t share the party’s ambitions to create a robust national government that would, in turn, create a robust and mixed national economy.
As president, Tyler vetoed a series of canonical Whig bills — a national bank, a tariff, other measures meant to generate an advanced economy. Less than a year into his tenure, when it became clear he was at odds with his party, he purged hundreds of Whig federal officeholders and signaled intent to form a new political organization in furtherance of a reelection bid in 1844. His entire Cabinet, with the exception of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, resigned. In the end, Tyler’s aspirations came to naught. While the Whig Congress failed in its bid to impeach him, he was a lame duck not long after he came to power. “The Whigs’ choice of Tyler,” a prominent historian noted, “turned out to be one of the worst mistakes ever made by any political party.”
Harrison and Tyler rose to high office in an age of wonders. A transportation revolution — first canals, then railroads — was collapsing space and time across the vast expanse of the American continent. But it was also quickly transforming the economy in a way that created a new class of winners and losers. An information revolution — first introduced by the rise of mass circulation newspapers (most of them partisan, and subsidized by preferential U.S. Postal rates for periodicals) and, after 1848, by the telegraph — drew people in closer connection to each other and rendered politics a more intimate and divisive affair. Theirs was the first campaign to feature mass rallies — imitations of evangelical revivals that excited public passions and made electoral politics a participatory sport and form of public entertainment. These developments attracted more people to participate in politics, but, in other ways, they degraded the national debate.
The Whigs were born of opposition to the Democratic Party, which, beyond removal of Native Americans, full-throated support for slavery and adulation of a popular leader, struggled to articulate a coherent agenda. Daniel Walker Howe, a leading scholar of antebellum political culture, concluded that Democrats led with emotional appeals “rather than by policy initiatives.” They “relied on invoking loyalty to the party rather than to a coherent program” and “succeeded in transferring to their party the personal loyalty Jackson had aroused and wrapped in it his mantle as defender of the people.”
Had he lived, William Henry Harrison might have been the antidote to all that. John Tyler certainly wasn’t.
With the passing of Lyon Gardiner Tyler, his brother is the last living link to a long-lost age. Yet the contours of that time — a nation passionate about politics but deeply divided by region and ideology — are eerily recognizable in the current moment, all these years later.
As a professionally trained historian, Lyon Jr. was clear-eyed in his assessment of his grandfather, but a stalwart guardian of the family’s place in American history. “Perhaps John Tyler wasn’t the greatest of presidents,” Lyon once remarked. “He was a great man, a loving husband and father, and was a servant of the people. You can’t beat that.”
View original post