True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

John Tyler



The Surprise President

There are many boys and men in our country with an ambition only to make good lawyers, good doctors, good merchants, good farmers or good mechanics. By dint of good work they will be likely enough to succeed in this. But the world may hold a great surprise for them, and take them far beyond what they expected. It is of one of these great surprises I wish to speak. Certainly no man could have been more surprised than John Tyler, when a messenger, riding desperately from Washington, arrived early one morning at his country seat with a letter which told him that he was the President of the United States. Here is the letter:

WASHINGTON, April 4, 1841.

"To John Tyler, Vice-President of the United States:

"Sir:—It becomes our painful duty to inform you that William Henry Harrison, late President of the United States, has departed this life.

"This distressing event took place this day, at the President's mansion in this city, at thirty minutes before one in the morning.

"We lose no time in despatching the chief clerk in the State Department as a special messenger to bear you these melancholy tidings.

"We have the honor to be with highest regard,

"Your obedient servants."

To this letter was signed the names of Daniel Webster and other members of President Harrison's Cabinet.

John Tyler was the first man to become President of the United States by the death of another President. You know that in our form of government the people elect a President, who rules the country with the aid of Congress, and whose place must be filled if he should die during the four years for which he is elected. At the same time that the President is elected, a Vice-President is also elected, to succeed him in office in case of his death; so when William Henry Harrison was nominated for President, John Tyler was the candidate for Vice-President. I have told you already how, during the exciting election of these two men, the banners carried the strange words "Tippecanoe and Tyler too."

Before I tell you what Tyler did as President, you will be interested in learning something of his early life, and you will also see why we say it is very important for every boy or girl who begins life to try and do everything so well, that if he should be called upon to fill a great office, or even to become President of the United States, he will be well prepared for it. This is just what John Tyler did.

He was born in Virginia, near Charles City, March 29, 1790. His father, whose name was also John Tyler, was a staunch old Virginia patriot, and had been Speaker of the Continental Congress. He was now a prominent lawyer, and it was his wish that his son, if possible, should also be well educated and study law. It is a great help to a boy when a father can help him decide what he shall do, and give him a good start.

Unlike some other Presidents of whom we have read, John Tyler's early home surroundings were very good. He came of the old planter class, with its culture and high social distinction. Although his father was not a man of wealth, yet he had sufficient means to give his son a good education. Very early did his father and mother begin to teach him things at home; so when he began to go to school he knew how to read and write, and also was very fond of books.

He very soon showed that he was a boy of more than ordinary ability. He had a quick mind, an excellent memory, was very fond of his books, and got a good start in his happy home under the training of his parents. He was only twelve years old when he was prepared to enter the William and Mary College, at Williamsburg, in Virginia. Here he studied so hard and did so well that he graduated with honor from this famous old college at the age of seventeen.

The boy was ambitious and determined to rise to the top of his profession, the law. His father was prominent in politics, and had served, as we have seen, in the Continental Congress. He had also served in the House of Burgesses, which was the name given to the Legislature of Virginia. He was still more honored in 1838, when he was made Governor of that State. This was a great help to the young lawyer, who eagerly went into politics and began to deliver political speeches—or stump speeches, as they are often called to-day

The young orator belonged to the Democratic party, which was then the leading party of the country, the one to which Jefferson and Madison had belonged. He was only twenty-one years of age when his neighbors and friends nominated him for the House of Burgesses, and he was elected.

This was a great honor for one so young, and he was sent to represent the county for five terms in succession. Before the war with England began, in 1812, young Tyler had won a fine business and had a high reputation as a lawyer. When the war broke out he showed that he was as warm a patriot as his father had been before him. When the British sailed up the Chesapeake and began to burn and plunder, he did all he could to stir up the people and gather the militia to oppose them. No man was more energetic than he in this work.

He was a young man of very easy and graceful manners, a good speaker, and ready to be friends with every one, and in the year 1816 his admirers nominated him for Congress, and he was sent to Washington to represent his district. He was then only twenty-six years old. Very few men have entered Congress so young. But although young in years, his experience in the politic of his State gave him the skill and power of a much older man. While in Congress he worked so hard that he found it necessary to resign in his second term and retire to his native county to regain health and strength. But his friends did not allow him to remain at home long. They sent him to the State Legislature, and a little later, in 1825, elected him by a large majority to become Governor of their State.

Western Railroad


As Governor, he showed that he was deeply interested in the welfare of his State, and through his efforts a great many useful laws were passed improving the condition of the people. Before this time Mr. Tyler was happily married. He had fallen in love with an attractive young lady of Cedar Grove, Virginia, named Miss Letitia Christian. He was twenty-three years old when the wedding took place. The newly wedded pair settled at Greenway, on a part of the Tyler estate, where they lived in great harmony and happiness.

It was not long before there was an opportunity for the young Governor to be elected to the United States Senate. About that time John Randolph, a distinguished orator from Virginia, but who had done a great many things to displease the people of the State, was a candidate for re-election. John Tyler was nominated to run against him, and was elected, having the honor of defeating one of the most famous men of the old Congress. This was in 1827, when he was only thirty-seven years of age. At this time John Quincy Adams was President of the United States. He served only a short time when he resigned and returned to Virginia and to his law practice. In this way he was able to earn a large amount of money for those times.

Although he had withdrawn from Congress, he continued to be very popular in his State. He was a Democrat still, but people began to call him the "Southern Whig ''; for though he differed with the Whigs of the North in some things, yet in many others he agreed with them. That was why, when the time came for the Whigs to nominate a President, and wanted a Southern man to run with William Henry Harrison for President, they nominated John Tyler for Vice-President. It was the votes of the Northern Whigs that, in the famous log-cabin campaign, made John Tyler the Democrat Vice-President of the United States.

At the time this was done no one imagined that he would be called upon to be President, and no one thought it made much difference what ideas the Vice-President might hold. You know the Vice-President is the man who presides over the United States Senate. He is sometimes called the President of the Senate. So it occurred that when William Henry Harrison was elected President, John Tyler became the presiding officer of the United States Senate.

President Harrison, as you have been told, lived only one month after he was inaugurated, and when he died the Presidency came to John Tyler. It was then that word was sent him, at his quiet home in Williamsburg, that he had become President of the United States. On receiving this important notice, he hurried with all speed to Washington and took the oath of office.

At that time some of the high Cabinet officials did not know what title to give him. He was the first Vice-President to become President, and they said it was not right for him to have the full title. There was a political question in this, for they did not know if Mr. Tyler would carry out the Whig policy. But he made short work of their objections, and at once took the title of President, as the Constitution gave him the right to do.

An interesting incident is told of what happened when he came to Washington. President Harrison had several very distinguished men in his Cabinet, probably the most distinguished being Daniel Webster, the great orator and statesman. He himself had also been a candidate for the Presidency. At the very first meeting the new President had with the Cabinet, he was told that it was customary for the President to take the advice of his Cabinet, and not to act upon anything before it was voted upon. The President, they said, should have one vote, and each one of his Cabinet officers should have one vote. Mr. Tyler listened quietly to what they had to say, and then informed them that he considered he was President of the United States. He was ready to follow their advice and counsel, if he approved of it, but he himself was responsible for the decision that was reached, and was not willing to have it settled by a Cabinet vote. If they did not like it that way they could resign. This rather surprised his Cabinet, but they knew very well that he was right, and they concluded to stay where they were.

Mr. Tyler had nearly four years to serve as President of the United States. He soon made it plain to the people of the United States that he did not agree at all with the ideas that President Harrison held on a great many subjects. He had been elected as a Whig, but he was really a Democrat.

President Tyler's position became soon very unpleasant. The people who had elected him did not like him, and many of these who had voted against him did not approve of what he had done; so the four years he was in office were very bitter and quarrelsome ones. When a new election took place Mr. Tyler was not nominated, and on the 4th of March, 1845, he was succeeded by James Knox Polk.

But the years that followed were very stirring years, for the great slavery contest had now come on. Finally the North and South could no longer agree, and the great Civil War broke out. Mr. Tyler was then living in Virginia, and he went with the South. He was elected to the Confederate Congress, but was not able to take much part. He was an old man now, and the excitement of the time bore heavily on him. He was attacked by a severe illness in 1862, and on January 18th he died at his home near Charles City.