John Tyler has long suffered from bad press. Derided as “His Accidency” by contemporaries who considered him unworthy of the office he inherited, he has long been marginalized as one of our less successful presidents. Yet such treatment minimizes his considerable legacy. As the first vice president who succeeded to the presidency because of the death of the incumbent, he established a precedent for legitimacy that has been followed by all seven of his successors who followed his path to the White House. As president, he settled major outstanding differences with Great Britain and championed – and in the waning days of his administration, gained – the annexation of Texas. Such achievements suggest that his contribution to both the presidency and to American history have been seriously underappreciated.
Gary May’s book goes far towards rectifying this. His short biography provides a nice overview of Tyler’s life and political career. Born into the Virginia plantation aristocracy, Tyler benefitted from the wealth and connections it provided. He followed his father into politics, and served as governor and senator for his state before resigning on a point of principle. Yet May makes clear that his selection as vice president was made more for the lack of better alternatives than for his individual qualifications. With Harrison’s abrupt death after only a month in the White House, Tyler spent nearly a full term as president, pursuing his own ambitious agenda despite his political isolation. Abandoned by the Whigs and spurned by the Democrats, Tyler found himself a man without a party, and was forced to abandon his hopes for another term as president.
Insightful and readable, May’s book is one of the more successful entries in “The American Presidents” series. With its focus on their White House tenure, series is not always a good fit with its subjects. Yet with Tyler it is ideal, giving the author the ability to illuminate an often overshadowed presidency. Though the period is outside of May academic specialization, none of this is apparent from his command of both the historical details and the literature on the period. All of this makes May’s book a superb starting point for anyone interested in an introduction to the life and career of America’s tenth president, one far more worthy of attention than it has traditionally received.