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.

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