Shortly after once again reaffirming his antipathy to abolitionism and settling in at the White House, Harrison died surviving only one month in office. Fellow Virginia native John Tyler, a Democrat, took office. Hailing from Charles City County, the same county that Harrison was raised in, Tyler's roots also went all the way back to the colony's founding. Terming him “a slavemonger whose talents are not above mediocrity,” John Quincy Adams was shocked at his accession to the presidency. Adams commented, “No one ever thought of his being placed in the executive chair.”
Raised on a 12,000 acre James River slave plantation worked by forty blacks, Tyler followed in the footsteps of fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe and attended William and Mary College. Learning of Harrison’s death while at his home in Williamsburg, Virginia, Tyler assumed office amid considerable confusion as to whether he was the Vice-President and an acting president or whether he actually became the President of the United States. Tyler forcefully took office defying suggestions that he defer to the Harrison cabinet or Congress. In doing so, Tyler established a precedent on the manner in which a president who dies in office is succeeded by the vice-president.
The first Tyler in America was Henry Tyler who greatly expanded his Virginia holdings from an original 254-acre royal grant in 1653 to become a prominent landholder by the time of his death in 1672. Passed on to his son, Henry Tyler II, part of his land was eventually used to establish the colonial capital Williamsburg. Henry Tyler’s son was named John, as was his grandson and great-grandson. This great-grandson, father of the 10th. president, known widely as “Judge Tyler” was a lifelong friend of Thomas Jefferson. Marrying Mary Armistead, the daughter of a prominent slaveholder in Elizabeth City County, he settled down at the Greenway plantation in the late 1770s.
His father's plantations in James City and Charles City counties totaled some nineteen hundred acres while those of his home estate Greenway and two nearby plantations included roughly twelve hundred acres and were worked by forty enslaved Africans during the future president’s childhood. In 1805 he sought to sell his Greenway estate and its slaves when he planned to move to Williamsburg where his sons attended school. Thus, the occasion of his sons’ acquisition of higher education almost signified the breakup of multi-generational networks of family and friends among the enslaved African Americans. Although he had advertised the sale in the pages of the Richmond Enquirer, he never went through with the sale.
Tyler followed the strong example of his father who, like Harrison’s, had formerly served as the governor of Virginia in the early 1800s. While his father served as the state’s governor, the younger Tyler read law in the most influential law firm in Richmond. The Tylers were the conscious representatives of slaveowners fearful of any interference with the control over the lives of the Africans they and their class legally exercised. Their fervent advocacy of states’ rights flowed from their desire to protect themselves against the forces of the non-slaveowning whites, the northern commercial class, and, most of all, the enslaved people themselves. Feeling the need to exercise the most frightful violence if necessary for the survival of the slave system and their perceived property rights, the Tylers also pushed for the other economic, social, and political imperatives that the South’s slavery-based agricultural economies dictated including a curtailed free speech, free press and free labor.
Four years after his participation in the War of 1812, a conflict he emerged from with a 160 acre war bonus, Tyler won a seat in the House of Representatives.54 As a young congressman he soon made a name for himself during the debates leading to the Missouri Compromise of 1820. During the Missouri statehood debate Tyler distinguished himself by arguing that the citizens of the new state should be allowed all of the rights enjoyed by the citizens of other states. This included the right to own slaves. After all, this land was a result of the purchase as a result of the taxes accrued from both North and South and, as such, belonged equally to citizens of both sections, Tyler reasoned. Adhering to the curious logic of the diffusion theory, Tyler maintained that expanding the sphere of slavery into the western states would ameliorate the conditions of slaves in the nation as a whole.
Much later, during the early days of the Civil War, Tyler would recall the Missouri Compromise as a milestone, a turning point, as “the opening of Pandora’s Box, which would let out upon us all the present evils which have gathered over the land.” John Tyler’s opposition to President Jackson developed only gradually as he applauded the historic veto of the Maysville Road bill and other internal improvements proposed by proponents of the American System. Tyler and other states’ rights advocates opposed this measure which would allow the government to purchase $150,000 of stock in the Maysville Turnpike Road Company for the construction of a 60-mile road that only would serve Kentucky.
In the aftermath of the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831, Tyler was among the slaveholders shaken out of their complacency. While the traumatized Virginia legislature in 1832 came the closest ever to passing a measure to emancipate slaves in the state, Tyler, as a member of the Congressional Committee on the District of Columbia proposed to end the slave trade in the District, a move he promised would put an end to some suffering on the part of the slaves and end its use as “a depot for the slaves brought from the neighboring States.”
©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.
In the mid-1830s Tyler expressed confidence in an array of kinder and gentler methods of managing his black slaves. “I trust that all will go smoothly in harvest,” he wrote. “My plan is to encourage my hands, and they work better under it than from fear. The harvest is the black man’s jubilee." He had unsuccessfully experimented using hired white labor and concluded slave labor was more efficient and profitable. Tyler believed that slavery represented both an improved quality of labor as well as higher productivity in comparison to free white laborers, a group he labeled “lazy.”
Following the bloody revolt led by Nat Turner in Southampton, Virginia in 1831, and the subsequent post office crisis, Tyler began to suspect that the “black man’s jubilee” might involve harvesting something other than crops. By 1835, John Tyler’s anger at abolitionists boiled over as he blamed them for inciting America’s enslaved Africans to rebellion:
The unexpected evil is now upon us; it has invaded our firesides, and under our own roofs is sharpening the dagger for midnight assassination, and exciting cruelty and bloodshed.
Tyler focused his outrage on abolitionists who had turned the “post-office department” into a “vehicle for distributing incendiary pamphlets,’ aiming to “despoil us of our property at the hazard of all and every consequence.” Tyler complained that slaveowners were “represented as demons in the shape of men” while abolitionists such as Garrison were portrayed as “philanthropists—the only lovers of the human race—the only legitimate defenders of the religion of Christ.” The abolitionists “patted” the “greasy little fellows on their cheeks” and gave “them most lovely kisses,” Tyler snarled.
Following his presidency Tyler retired to his Sherwood Forest plantation near Richmond, Virginia. During this period, his wife, Julia Tyler, wrote a widely publicized article in the February 1853 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, a Richmond monthly. She attempted to answer the appeal from British royal family women for the women of the Southern elite to work to end an institution they regarded as clearly immoral. The former first lady emphasized how pleasant slavery at Sherwood Forest was citing examples of slaves running away in returning voluntarily. She claimed that Africans lived “sumptuously,” were Christianized, and enjoyed conditions European workers would envy.
Later, however, the Tyler’s self-described paradise was disrupted forever. On the 16th of October, 1859, John Brown, Dangerfield Newby and others attacked an Harpers’ Ferry, Virginia federal arsenal. Aiming to foment a slave insurrection enabling thousands of slaves to escape and rise up in insurrection, the abortive raid instead set the stage for the beginning of the Civil War. For the Tylers life would never be the same. Former president John Tyler seemed to sense this as evident in this tirade against abolitionists:
A few years ago a man to have dared to utter such treasonable discourses as proceed from so many lips at the North now would have been at once mobbed, stoned, and put down instead of listened to—and they would have been pointed to as objects of disgust. . .
Tyler’s good fortune in attaining the presidency upon the death of the Whig William Henry Harrison made little difference to blacks in the United States. While the staunchly pro-slavery Democrats were slightly more extreme proponents of the notion that slavery was advantageous for the whole of society and a more just social system than that of the north, both men were solidly pro-slavery and had little regard for the welfare of blacks, enslaved or unenslaved, north or south.