Too many historians measure the “greatness” of American presidents by how far they expanded their power, or if they led the country into war. One who did neither was the Virginian, John Tyler.
“Tippecanoe and Tyler too!” was the victorious Whig party’s campaign slogan in 1840, but William Henry Harrison died soon after his inauguration and Tyler became first to succeed to the presidency. A lifelong champion of liberty secured by states’ rights, Tyler had broken with Democrats over Andrew Jackson’s threatened invasion of South Carolina, after that state nullified the “Tariff of Abominations.” Once in office, Tyler so infuriated Whigs by his opposition to the national bank that they expelled him from their party. Still, President Tyler peacefully settled a border dispute with Canada, and he and Secretary of State John C. Calhoun prepared the way for admission of the Republic of Texas.
In retirement, Tyler strove to be a peacemaker as the sectional dispute deepened. He served as chairman of the Washington Peace Conference in February 1861—one last, forlorn effort at compromise. When he led a delegation from that body in a courtesy call on President-elect Abraham Lincoln, Tyler came away appalled. Lincoln seemed determined on war, and Tyler returned home an advocate of secession.
Tyler represented Virginia in the Provisional Confederate Congress, and went on to win a seat in the Confederate House of Representatives set to convene in February 1862. Two of the former president’s sons, and five of his grandsons, joined the Southern army. His teenaged granddaughter, Letitia Christian Tyler, had the honor of raising the first Confederate flag.
On January 18, before he could take his seat in Congress, the seventy-one year old Tyler died in Richmond. The city went into mourning as thousands came to the capitol to pay their respects. Tyler’s casket was draped with the flag of his country—the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.
John Tyler remains the only former United States president whose passing was ignored by the government of that country.