Illness spread across America for an extended period of time. Countless became sick and many died. While this situation sounds as if could have been pulled from today’s news, this outbreak took place during President John Tyler’s presidency in the early 1840s.
Reflecting disappointment in the Tyler administration generally and its handling of the epidemic, this public health crisis was called “Tyler’s Grippe.” Name-calling was commonplace during our tenth president’s term due to the manner in which he took office. Tyler became president 180 years ago when President William Henry Harrison died exactly one month after his inauguration.
Despite the prevailing opinion of late President Harrison’s cabinet and the leadership on Capitol Hill that Tyler would essentially be the interim or acting president, the Vice President unequivocally settled the immediate matter and setting a precedent for all time by arranging to be sworn in without delay. His rivals may have not appreciated his expeditious approach, yet the 10th president maintained a peaceful transfer of power valued as a hallmark of American democracy.
Never fully accepting Tyler as president, his political rivals continually derided him with the label “His Accidency.” In spite of Tyler’s determination not to be perceived as an accidental president, his term in office is immediately associated with mishaps of all types.
In fact, one of Tyler’s first acts as president inadvertently created an uncomfortable conversation about the religious character of the United States. Proclaiming a national day of mourning for President Harrison, he opened: “When a Christian People feel themselves to be overtaken by a great public calamity…” Although recognizing that every citizen worships according to their own denomination, this Virginian’s introductory words were perceived to run counter to those of another famous citizen of his home state, namely Thomas Jefferson. The latter penned the 1786 Virginian Statute of Religious Freedom that served as the basis for religious freedom in the Bill of Rights. What can be excused as a Freudian slip in the midst of a Constitutional crisis, one could argue, actually reflected his beliefs about a stratified and divided nation.
While political theater commonly pits the President against the opposition party, Tyler’s term can be seen as a political comedy in which he was regularly at odds with his own party, the Whigs. Their differences resulted not only in Tyler’s expulsion from the party, but also his being the first president to face a resolution of impeachment.
Tyler’s approach to slavery was anything but accidental. According to historian Edward P. Crapol, the 10th president had a “lifelong ambivalence about the morality of the South’s peculiar institution,” yet fervently defended it. Born and raised in Washington and Jefferson’s state, he suffered from their same blind spots regarding freedom, equality, and slavery.
Two decades after his term in office, in 1861, slavery and white supremacy’s grip on Tyler ultimately swayed him to forgo a reconciliation of the states and to support Virginia’s secession from the Union and subsequent entry into the Confederacy. The last chapter of his long political career featured this former US President’s election to the Confederate House of Representatives.
When Tyler died in January 1862, there was no proclamation from the White House. In fact, President Lincoln purposely did not order flags to be lowered to half-staff for one of his predecessors now branded a “traitor.” As much as he preserved the US government by establishing the “Tyler Precedent” for presidential succession later ratified with the 25th Amendment, he undermined his country by endorsing secession.
By contrast, a little over 110 miles away in the new Confederate capitol in Richmond, Virginia, Tyler received a prestigious send-off. However, it is important to note that his funeral marked the first and only instance that an American President was buried with a foreign flag, without the familiar stars and stripes to which he originally pledged his loyalty.
In the midst of our current pandemic, the complicated and largely forgotten legacy of President John Tyler represents a tragic chapter in our history. Tyler’s grip extended from public health to racism and framed the battle for America’s soul. Sadly, 180 years later, this battle continues today in every classroom around the country, at the Statehouse in Georgia, and in a courthouse in Minneapolis.