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Book review: John Tyler by Edward P. Crapol

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John TylerBefore reading John Tyler: The Accidental President by Edward P. Crapol I thought, this guy seems kind of shady. Letting himself be put on the Whig presidential ticket and then changing all his politics once he became president? Accused of fathering lots of children with his slaves, but being staunchly pro-slavery?

I feel *slightly* better about Tyler after reading this. But only slightly.

Know before you read

This is not a full biography of Tyler’s life; it is more a collection of his policies during his presidency (chp 3: slavery; chp 6 Texas, etc). This was the first Tyler book I read, so I didn’t really know much about his life or much about politics at the time before reading this. In consequence, this means that there is little to no context for Tyler’s actions.

Also, please note that Crapol is very sympathetic (at times defensive) of Tyler. He seems to be valiantly trying to dredge Tyler up from the bottom of presidential ranks, pointing out Tyler’s accomplishments but I’m not sure it works. He was considered the “traitor President” for a reason.

John Tyler

John Tyler became president of the United States in 1841 “accidentally.” William Henry Harrison died a month into his term, and as vice president, Tyler stepped up. As the first vice president to be in this position, there were very definite questions about whether Tyler was actually president, or simply ‘acting president.’ Because of the steps Tyler took immediately after the death of Harrison (taking the oath of office, issuing an inaugural speech, refusing mail addressed to ‘acting president’), Tyler established the precedent of succession that was made law with the adoption of the 25th amendment.

Fun little tidbit: President Tyler was the first president to have impeachment proceedings begun against him. Nothing came of it, but it gives you an idea of how Tyler was viewed by Congress at the time.

It took me longer than usual to read this book, and I think is because this book has no real through narrative. It reads more like a textbook, in which the class would take a couple weeks to look at each chapter and various aspects of Tyler’s policies. Although, lord knows who would teach a whole semester on Tyler’s (mostly) foreign policies. One other little quirk about this book: Crapol uses “South’s peculiar institution” as a stand-in for “slavery”. This would be fine if A) he also used OTHER euphemisms for slavery (he doesn’t), or B ) “peculiar” wasn’t such an understatement. Crapol refers to slavery as the “peculiar institution” often enough to be distracting and irritating.

On the plus side, I never realized that Tyler did have some significant accomplishments while in office (Texas, Hawaii, China), however this book presents almost only those accomplishments and very little about the man, his past before the White House, the political environment he was working in, etc. Tyler spent much of his presidency trying to expand the United States — including through Texas, California and Oregon territories. His was also the administration that opened up trade with the Pacific Rim countries (new info for me).

This book is not the one you read to learn about Tyler — it’s more the book you read to shore up your good opinion of him or learn about the administration-specific happenings. John Tyler: The Accidental President by Edward P. Crapol is fine for the dedicated, deep scholar, but not for someone looking for a broad overview of the man and his place in history.

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