May 23, 2010

it's not like we ever liked you anyway

despite his success annexing texas, john tyler lost reelection to james k. polk. he went home to his estate in virginia, sherwood forest, where he and his wife julia hung out, having kids and entrenching their views.

although he had never been a popular president, the south didn't have too many political luminaries to look up to, so he became a respected elder statesman of virginia. maybe this long-sought, long-coveted popularity explains his post-presidential actions. or maybe he had been waiting for the opportunity his whole life. either way, john tyler became a leading secessionist.

he was asked to be the president of a peace conference between the north and south, a last ditch attempt to avoid civil war. attended by 12 border states, 6 of each north and south, the conference went on for a while, without accomplishing much, and then at the end john tyler gave a speech stepping down as president of the conference and went home to vote for secession. there is a legend, although it is no more than that, that tyler had only attended the conference to stall the advent of war while the south built up its arsenal.

tyler was sooned elected to the confederate senate. his granddaughter letitita, who had actually been born in the white house, could be seen raising the confederate flag at confederate rallies. whatever his relationship with the american people had been, he left it behind. and the north was furious.

he was called the traitor president. when he died, in 1862 (before he ever took up that senate seat), the event was met by silence from washington, the only former president whose death was ignored.

May 22, 2010

you, sir, are no thomas jefferson

john tyler was never supposed to be president. he was chosen, as were most vice-presidential candidates, to balance the ticket geographically. he was referred to commonly as "his accidency," and as soon as he got into office he went rogue.

even though he was elected on a whig ticket, one of his first actions  in office was to veto a whig bill that had passed both houses. as a result he was the first president to face impeachment proceedings, led by john quincy adams on the grounds that he had no right to veto a bill that had passed with no problem.

the whigs called him a traitor, but the democrat-republicans weren't too eager to welcome the unpopular man into their party, so tyler started to call himself "a president without a party." then he spent 4 years just doing whatever he wanted.

john tyler idolized thomas jefferson and james madison. he referred to them constantly as his political role models. during his presidency, he kept taking big, bold actions reminiscent of those adept nation builders. the difference is that they were good at it.

jefferson and madison had stood up to great britain in the form of the blockade and then the war of 1812. in the 1840s, anglophobia was still rampant, not only because of popular feeling but because great britain was the most powerful state in the world. tyler stood up to great britain on two fronts - canada, hawaii, and china.

first, to settle the boundary between maine and canada, he sent a secret agent to england to gather information. completely without the knowledge of the actual american ambassador to england, this guy shows up and starts snooping around. john tyler was paying him with secret service funds, which he didn't have to disclose. it was weird.

then hawaii decided to send two emissaries on a world tour getting big nations to recognize their sovereignty. america was more than happy to do this, because it would mean britain couldn't colonize hawaii. but when the two emissaries showed up in d.c., tyler didn't see them for several weeks, giving really weird and vague excuses, which might have had something to do with the fact that one of the hawaiian dudes was black.

then there was china. tyler wanted to sign a trading treaty with china to block great britain's monopoly. so he sent caleb cushing to china to negotiate, and the letter of introduction he sent with him demonstrates his enormous belief in white supremacy.

feast your eyes, fellow americans, on this humiliating piece of diplomacy:

"I hope your health is good. China is a great empire, extending over a great part of the world. The Chinese are numerous. You have millions and millions of subjects. The twenty-six United States are as large as China, though our people are not so numerous. The rising sun looks over the great mountains and great rivers of China. When he sets, he looks upon rivers and mountains equally large in the United States."

and later,

"The Chinese love to trade with our people, and sell them tea and silk, for which our people pay silver, and sometimes other articles. But if the Chinese and Americans will trade, there should be rules, so that they shall not break your laws nor our laws. "

the chinese, for some reason, decided to ignore this blatantly insulting letter and sign a pretty good treaty, saving their revenge for the 2008 olympics.

so in the end, tyler accomplished a lot of good things. he settled a border with great britain, extended the monroe doctrine to hawaii, and set up trading policies with china. but each time it seemed like a miracle that it worked out. he would go into it brashly, without an ounce of tact, and all the other parties involved would compensate for him and get it done. basically, thank heaven for daniel webster, tyler's secretary of state, who was 8 times the politician, and is responsible for most of tyler's "accomplishments."

in a washington full of larger than life politicians such as daniel webster, henry clay, and john calhoun, tyler was widely regarded as the least qualified man in town for the job he held. i think this is why he just kept doing whatever he wanted. he was convinced that if he could annex texas, he would win the favor of the american people. he did, but he didn't. using the same disregard for the constitution that he had displayed again and again (and taking notes from jefferson's purchase of louisiana), he annexed texas by a joint resolution instead of an amendment, a move that made the old guard, JQA in particular, super mad.

his accidency was not reelected. but unlike other former presidents, he did not go back to his mansion and age quietly, instead he worked to hasten the civil war. hold on to your seats, readers, it's about to get ugly.

May 17, 2010

coming up next, 4 more years of not ending slavery

from a distance, our presidential timeline so far would look something like this:

Founding Fathers

Nation Builders

Eight Guys Who Didn't Free the Slaves


in the eyes of history, these guys never stood a chance.

May 06, 2010

a heartbeat away

in an early season episode of the west wing, the vice president is being pressured to resign because of a public scandal (alcoholism i think? dave?) in the end, president bartlett tells him he doesn't want him to resign. the reason: "because i could die."

the irony of the episode, as with so many west wing episodes, is that in the endless political maneuvering, the heart of the issue was forgotten. that being that the vice president could become the president in a blink of an eye.

and for this we have john tyler to thank. the constitution is very unclear about the process of succession in the case of the president's death. lucky for tyler, william henry harrison was gravely ill for about a month, so he had a long time to get ready to make his move. after the president's death, he went to the capital and announced that he would take office. the response of the federal government was basically, "um...are you sure? that what we're supposed to do? does anybody know?" and since john tyler was the only one who acted with any certainty, the office was his. it became known as the tyler precedent, and has been used 7 times since. (it was not until 1967 that an amendment to the constitution made official what had happened 8 times.)

8 times! 8 presidents have died in office! 4 by assassination and 4 by natural death. that's more than 1 in 6 presidents that die in office. that number seems high considering the apathy and mixed motives with which we continue to choose and judge vice presidential nominees. especially since the other precedent that john tyler set was that a vice president, who has no campaign promises breathing down his back, can kind of do whatever he wants.

May 03, 2010

Of 19th Century Campaign Slogans

Just finished Harrison (sucked) and haven't finished Tyler yet, but I thought a good transitional post would be about the greatest gift that the two of those jokers gave to posterity---the campaign slogan. "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" is a masterpiece---at once alliterative, iambic, and stirring. It makes a man feel good about casting his ballot for politicians capable of constructing such a sturdy slogan.

James K. Polk, Janet's fave, continued Harrison's tradition of poetic slogans with his melodic "54-40 or fight." However Polk also brought upon us the age of the cumbersome campaign slogan with his "Reannexation of Texas and Reoccupation of Oregon." Any political scientist could have told Polk that presidential elections are about change, and that it is ill-advised to use the prefix "re" in your slogan three times (if you look hard enough).

Then came Zachary Taylor's "President of the People" campaign, which boldly forfeited the coveted animal vote to ensure his election. John C. Fremont's unsuccessful 1856 bid had as its rallying cry, "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Speech, Free Men, and Fremont," and mostly Honest Abe Lincoln followed in the money-for-nothing theme with "Vote Yourself a Farm." Lincoln's 1864 slogan was "Don't swap horses in the middle of the stream," which sounds reasonable enough, and which George W. Bush appropriated in his 2004 run. The message: I got you into this mess, so who else is better equipped to get you out? It reminds me of my late Uncle Danny, who spent the first half of his career installing asbestos insulation, and the second half removing it.

Then, my friends, we arrive at the 1884 election between President Grover Cleveland, and his challenger, James G. Blaine of Maine. Blaine struck first with his rhyme, "Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha." It is hard to make much of this, but my feeling is that this little ditty was the 1884 version of the oft-seen 2000 bumper sticker, "A village in Texas is missing its idiot." Cleveland, not to be outdone, retorted, "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine." Aside from the four superfluous syllables of "Continental," the slogan is pure genius---the perfect smartass comeback to the playground taunt. Cleveland took it all the way to the White House, and history remembers Blaine as just another continental liar.

That is all for this gimmick post. This may leave you wondering if we can really be serious about breaking this post up so that we will have another slogan column at the ready when we have nothing to write about during the 20th century presidents. Yes, We Can.