Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com
Posts tagged "President Tyler"
JOHN TYLER

10th President of the United States (1841-1845)

Full Name: John Tyler, Jr.
Born: March 29, 1790, Greenway plantation, Charles City County, Virginia
Political Party: Whig (Tyler’s actions as President angered his fellow Whigs, especially those in Congress, and resulted in his expulsion from the party for most of his Administration)
State Represented: Virginia
Term: April 4, 1841-March 4, 1845 (Assumed the Presidency upon the death of William Henry Harrison)
Age at Inauguration: 51 years, 8 days
Administration: 14th (completed the term of President Harrison)
Congresses: 27th and 28th
Vice President: None (1841-1845)
Died: January 18, 1862, Exchange Hotel, Richmond, Virginia
Age at Death: 71 years, 295 days
Buried: Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia

2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 19 of 43 [↓2]

It’s tough to make the case for John Tyler as a good President considering the fact that he wasn’t elected to the office, pissed off the Cabinet that he inherited from President Harrison so much that almost all of them resigned, and so clearly abandoned the principles (well, the very few principles that the Whig Party had in 1840) that had landed him on the Whig ticket in 1840 as Harrison’s running mate that the party excommunicated him and he spent part of his Presidency as a President without a party. Tyler, however, exhibited strong leadership when Harrison died one month into his term in 1841 and basically created the process for exactly what happens during a Presidential succession, something which wasn’t explained by the Constitution, never tested until Harrison’s death, and was hotly debated when Tyler assumed the office.  This strengthened the office of Vice President by clarifying that the VP isn’t merely the “acting President” when there is a vacancy in the Presidency but actually becomes the President with all of the powers and responsibilities that come with the office — a decision that was eventually codified in the Constitution.  Tyler’s actions in succeeding Harrison were an important precedent in American History — a VERY important precedent that was very controversial at the time — and precedents matter when it comes to ranking great leaders.  It also changed the way political parties choose their Presidential tickets.  Tyler also had some foreign policy victories, particularly with Great Britain and China, and helped to usher Texas into the Union.  We’ll try not to hold that last one against him. However, Tyler’s legacy wasn’t helped by his support of the Confederacy, which included service as a delegate to the provisional Confederate Congress and his election to the Confederate House of Representatives (he died before taking his seat). It’s difficult to separate that aspect of his life — literally being perceived as a traitor by the American people isn’t something that just passes with time, especially if you once happened to be the Commander-in-Chief. But I’m ranking the Presidents by their Presidencies, not what they did before or after their time in the White House. John Tyler wasn’t a great President and he may not have even been a good President. However, the strong actions he took to establish the precedent for Presidential succession were so historically important and so influential in the years to come that it’s not preposterous to say that few individuals have had a bigger impact in shaping the institution of the Presidency.

PREVIOUS RANKINGS:
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine:  22 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine:  25 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine:  29 of 38
1990: Siena Institute:  33 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine:  32 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  36 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll:  32 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership:  35 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  35 of 42
2010: Siena Institute:  37 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre:  37 of 40

Tyler is a political sectarian, of the slave-driving, Virginian, Jeffersonian school, principled against all improvement, with all the interests and passions and vices of slavery rooted in his moral and political constitution — with talents not above mediocrity, and a spirit incapable of expansion to the dimensions of the station upon which he has been cast by the hand of Providence.
John Quincy Adams, on John Tyler, shortly after Tyler had assumed the Presidency following the death of William Henry Harrison, 1841
How could I have witnessed this without an unbecoming burst of indignation or of laughter? John Tyler is a slave-monger. With the association of the thundering cannon, which I heard, and the smoke of burning Charlestown, which I saw on that awful day, combined with this pyramid with Quincy granite and John Tyler’s nose, with a shadow outstretching that of the monumental column, I stayed at home and visited my seedling trees and heard the cannonades, rather than watch the President at dinner in Faneuil Hall swill like swine and grunt about the rights of man.
John Quincy Adams, on his thoughts on the irony and hypocrisy of slave-owning President John Tyler visiting JQA’s home state of Massachusetts to commemorate the Bunker Hill monument
[Tyler] ended his life suddenly, last Friday, in Richmond — going down to death amid the ruins of his native State. He himself was one of the architects of its ruin; and beneath that melancholy wreck his name will be buried, instead of being inscribed on the Capitol’s monumental marble, as a year ago he so much desired.

John Tyler’s obituary in The New York Times following Tyler’s death at the Exchange Hotel in Richmond, Virginia on January 18, 1862.

The rather unsentimental tone of Tyler’s obituary (which was less than 1,500 words in length) is due to the fact that he was seen as a traitor to the United States because of his support for the Confederacy. At the time of his death, Tyler was in Richmond preparing to take the seat in the Confederate House of Representatives that he had been elected to in November 1861.

Tyler’s connection to the Confederacy meant that there was no official recognition or announcement of his death by the U.S. government. It wasn’t until 1915 — a half-century after Tyler died and the Civil War ended — that a monument approved by Congress was placed near the grave of the 10th President in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.

On February 28, 1844, Dolley Madison was far removed from her time as First Lady of the United States.  Her husband, James Madison, had left the White House almost 27 years earlier and he had died in 1836, but Dolley – now 75 years old – remained a darling of the Washington social scene.  Though she struggled financially, Dolley Madison continued entertaining guests in the nation’s capital and she helped organize social gatherings around the city, acting as a sort of guest hostess wherever she visited.  Now, as the first auguries of spring began their awakening in-and-around Washington, D.C., Dolley had helped plan a cruise down the Potomac River on the newly-built USS Princeton – a showcase vessel for the United States Navy which happened to be one of the most advanced warships of its time.

Launched just six months earlier, the Princeton was the U.S. Navy’s first propeller-driven warship and its Captain, Robert Field Stockton was proud of his charge.  A cruise to demonstrate the ship’s speed, capabilities, and weaponry to the Washington elite would be advantageous to the Navy’s growth and to Captain Stockton’s ambition.  Besides Dolley Madison and the Princeton’s crew of 178 sailors, the ship welcomed over 350 guests, including dignitaries such as Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer, Secretary of War William Wilkins, Postmaster General Charles A. Wickliffe, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and other diplomats and members of Congress.  The most celebrated guest on the Princeton that day, however, was President John Tyler, who had also invited a young woman he had been romantically interested in, Julia Gardiner, and her father, David Gardiner, an influential New York lawyer and former State Senator.

Everyone on board the Princeton had underlying reasons for taking the cruise down the Potomac.  For some, it was to see the Princeton for themselves.  For others, it was because it was the place to be for politicians and diplomats on that day.  Some took the cruise for the opportunity to observe others, and some took the cruise in order to be noticed.  The big draw, however, was a chance to see the Princeton’s two large guns, the Oregon and the Peacemaker, being fired.  Both guns were impressive, but the Peacemaker was an amazing spectacle – at the time, it was the largest naval gun in the world.  The ship was so new and the Peacemaker was so powerful that on the day of the cruise down the Potomac, it had been fired no more than five times, according to Captain Stockton.

In February 1844, John Tyler was entering the final year of a contentious, controversial, and accidental Presidency.  Elected as Vice President alongside William Henry Harrison in 1840, Tyler spent only a month in the Vice Presidency before President Harrison died in office.  On April 4, 1841, Tyler became the 10th President of the United States, but his succession was not a smooth one.  Harrison had been the first President to die in office and the Constitution was not specifically clear about Presidential succession.  To many, including everyone in President Harrison’s Cabinet, Tyler was still the Vice President and only assumed the duties of the Presidency, not the title or privileges (such as living in the White House).  At his first meeting with the men Harrison had appointed to the Cabinet, the Cabinet all but insisted that they would rule by committee and that Tyler had no more power or influence than, say, the Postmaster General.  Many Americans felt that Tyler was merely “Acting President”, and that he was to defer to the will of the Cabinet on all issues.


Tyler vehemently disagreed and the manner in which he assumed office set a precedent that was followed by all future Vice Presidents and was eventually cemented into the Constitution.  Tyler declared that he was not the Vice President or the “Acting President”, but that Harrison’s death and propelled him directly into the office of President of the United States to serve out the remainder of Harrison’s term with the same powers and duties and privileges that come with the office.  Tyler moved into the White House and when his Cabinet balked at his assumption of power, he accepted the resignation of everyone but his Secretary of State, Daniel Webster (Webster eventually resigned in 1843). 

President Tyler’s troubles did not disappear once Harrison’s Cabinet departed.  The slavery question was tearing the nation further and further apart by the day.  When Tyler won election in 1840 as Harrison’s Vice President, he did so as a member of the Whig Party, but he was all over the political spectrum.  As a younger man, he supported Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans and he supported Andrew Jackson during Jackson’s first term before becoming a Whig.  Upon his Vice Presidential nomination, there were questions about Tyler’s Whig credentials, but the Whigs needed a strong Southern balance on the ticket and accepted Tyler.  Now that he was President, Tyler’s independence frustrated his party.  With Whigs in control of Congress and the White House, the party attempted to establish another Bank of the United States now that Andrew Jackson was out of the picture and retired in Nashville.  Congress pushed through a bill creating a new Bank of the United States, but President Tyler betrayed his party and vetoed the bill twice.  So, just months after assuming the Presidency, Tyler was expelled from the Whigs and remained a President without a party until he left office in 1845.

Now, on a warm day at the end of February 1844, Tyler was thinking about whether or not he would support the annexation of Texas.  The President also thought of romance.  In September 1842, Tyler’s wife, Letitia, died in the White House after suffering a stroke.  Tyler was still grieving when he began courting Julia Gardiner in January 1843.  Tyler had met Julia while his wife was still alive, but he didn’t become smitten with her until after his wife’s death.  Tyler and Julia kept their relationship guarded from the public and the President was even secretive about it to his family.  Part of the reason for his reluctance to be open about his feelings was because Letitia had only been dead for a few months when he started dating Julia.  However, a bigger reason was Julia’s age.  When they began dating, Julia Gardiner was just 22 years old.  The 52-year-old President was wary about how his children (he and Letitia had seven children) would feel about him dating a woman who was five years younger than his oldest daughter. 


The age difference also worried Julia’s family.  Julia Gardiner was the daughter of David Gardiner, a wealthy New York lawyer and former New York State Senator.  She was born in 1820 on an island in the Long Island Sound named after her family, and had everything that she wanted or needed while growing up on Gardiner’s Island.  Julia was beautiful and much in demand by the eligible bachelors of the East Coast.  After meeting President Tyler, Julia first tried to reject his advances, but she was certainly intrigued by the powerful and charming Virginian.  For his part, Tyler was madly in love with Julia and he proposed to her in late-1843.  Julia’s mother did not approve of her daughter marrying a man 30 years older than Julia, so Tyler didn’t get an answer.  By inviting Julia and her father to accompany him on the Princeton, John Tyler hoped to show David Gardiner that he could impress the wealthy New Yorker and demonstrate that he could be a wonderful husband to Julia.

•••

Guests gathered at the Washington Navy Yard as ferries transported them across the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, where the USS Princeton was anchored and ready for the afternoon cruise down the Potomac.  As dignitaries boarded Captain Stockton’s ship, they marveled at the size of the two guns on deck and examined every inch of the 164-foot warship.  Music was provided by the Marine Band — “The President’s Own” – and food was served below deck as the Princeton began its leisurely cruise down the Potomac.  As guests explored the Princeton and watched the historic sites on both shores of the Potomac pass by, the massive Peacemaker was fired to the delight of everyone on the ship.  The rounds fired by the powerful Peacemaker were capable of traveling up to three miles.  As the warship cruised down the river the rounds that were fired were aimed at ice floes in the distance which were breaking apart as the sun warmed the Potomac.   The cruise continued, with men mostly on the deck and pretty much all women below deck where food and drinks flowed freely, conversation was genial, and some of the guests were gleefully singing and clearly enjoying themselves.

When the Princeton reached Mount Vernon and George Washington’s sprawling estate came into view, the ship fired another round from the Peacemaker in tribute to the 1st President and then turned around for the return trip to Washington, D.C.  The Princeton’s passengers had gathered below deck for celebratory toasts and to listen to the impromptu singing concert taking place in the salon.  At around 4:00 PM, some of the men requested to witness the Peacemaker be fired again, but Captain Stockton demurred, telling the men “No more guns tonight.”  However, one of the men who wished to see the Peacemaker fired once again was Thomas W. Gilmer, the man who had become Secretary of the Navy just 10 days earlier – a man who just happened to be Captain Stockton’s superior.  Gilmer’s wish was something akin to an order to Captain Stockton, so Stockton headed to the deck and had the gun prepared to be fired once more.

Men began heading upstairs to witness the firing of the Peacemaker while the women remained below deck and continued with their songs and conversations.  President Tyler was heading up the gangway plank towards the deck when he was told that his son-in-law, William Waller, wife of his daughter Elizabeth, was about to sing one of Tyler’s favorite songs.  Instead of heading to the deck, the President headed back into the salon and was handed a drink.  Upstairs, men crowded around the giant Peacemaker for one last firing.

On the deck, Secretary of War William Wilkins jokingly told the spectators, “Though I am Secretary of War, I do not like this firing, and believe I shall run!” before moving to the far side of the Princeton.  The remainder of the guests were close to the Peacemaker and the big gun was ready to be fired.  The Princeton was about 15 miles downriver from Washington, D.C. and two sailors took the final steps for firing the gun.

Instantly, a massive explosion rocked the Princeton and the deck was obscured by white smoke and an eerie silence.  President Tyler rushed up to the deck to investigate what had happened, but what he found was a horrific scene.  The Peacemaker – the largest naval gun in the world – had exploded at the breech.  The powerful explosion tore part of the ship’s deck and the Peacemaker broke into red-hot pieces of iron that flew into the crowd of spectators.  Nobody downstairs was injured, but the deck of the Princeton was a place of horror.  Eight people had been killed and 17 were seriously injured, including Captain Stockton and Senator Thomas Hart Benton.  As President Tyler reached the deck, the silence turned to anguished screams and confusion. 

The President fought through the smoke and found that the toll was high.  Secretary of State Abel Upshur was dead – literally disemboweled by the blast.  Navy Secretary Gilmer was dead.  The Princeton’s Commander Beverly Kennon and two Princeton sailors were dead.  American diplomat Virgil Maxcy was dead.  President Tyler’s slave, Armistead, who had requested and been granted permission from Tyler to view the gun as it was being fired was dead.  And, finally, David Gardiner – the father of the woman that the President hoped to marry – was also killed by the blast, his arms and legs severed from his body by the force of the explosion.  A tearful President was devastated by the loss of two of his Cabinet members, and he headed back down below deck to notify the women about what had happened.  Screaming and crying hysterically, the surviving men kept them off of the deck so that they didn’t see the gruesome scene.

The smoke-filled deck was covered with blood, dismembered limbs, dead bodies, and stunned survivors.  Below decks, the women who had accompanied the Princeton awaited news from above, which quickly trickled downstairs.  Someone yelled, “The Secretary of State is dead!” and the news did not improve.  When Julia Gardiner found out that her father was among those who had been killed in the blast, she fainted – directly into the arms of President Tyler.  Dolley Madison, who had seen much in her 75 years was certainly stunned by the tragedy, but she quickly did her best to comfort the Princeton’s passengers who were shaken and distressed. 

As the USS Princeton limped back to Washington, D.C., John Tyler comforted Julia Gardiner as best as he could.  For the President, his pleasure cruise with the woman he hoped to marry and her father could not have gone worse.  Now, David Gardiner lay in pieces on the deck of the Princeton as Tyler – who was also returning to Washington without a Secretary of State and Secretary of the Navy – tried to console Gardiner’s young daughter, but she remained unconscious until the ship arrived back in Alexandria, Virginia.  

When the Princeton arrived at Alexandria, President Tyler literally carried Julia Gardiner from the wounded warship.  On the gangplank, Julia finally awakened in the President’s arms, and as she later said, “I struggled so that I almost knocked both of us off the gangplank.  I did not know at the time, but I learned later it was the President whose life I almost consigned to the water.”  President Tyler had Julia taken directly to the White House where she spent the next few days recuperating under the watchful eyes of the President and his large family.

The bodies of Julia’s father, the two Cabinet members (Upshur and Gilmer), the Princeton’s Commander Kennon, and the diplomat Maxcy remained on board the Princeton on the night of the 28th.  The injured went to hospitals and homes around the capital city.  The next day, Washington was in official mourning as the word of the tragedy spread and the signs of mourning – black crepe hanging on the White House and other public buildings – were displayed.  As Washington mourned, the bodies of Gardiner, Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon, and Maxcy were transported to the White House, where their flag-draped caskets rested in honor in the East Room.  (It’s safe to assume that President Tyler’s slave wasn’t awarded the same honors – when the bodies were removed from the Princeton, they were all placed in magnificent mahogany caskets, except for Armistead, who was placed in one made from cherry.)

After two days of lying in state in the East Room, Gardiner, Upshur, Gilmer, and Kennon were transferred to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where all of official Washington showed up to pay their respects at their joint funeral (Maxcy’s family took his remains for a private funeral and burial shortly after his body arrived at the Executive Mansion).  It was a solemn occasion – one of the biggest tragedies to strike the United States up to that point, and a significant loss to President Tyler, both professionally and personally.  Tyler was mourning two important members of his Cabinet, and the woman he hoped to marry was burying her father after he had been killed in the most gruesome manner imaginable on a cruise that Tyler had invited him to take.

The funeral started with an ominous and unfortunate signal:  the firing of loud artillery across from the Executive Mansion could not have been a pleasant reminder to those who had survived the tragedy on board the Princeton a few days earlier.  The bodies of Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon, and Gardiner were taken to Congressional Cemetery following the funeral and buried there, although Gardiner was later exhumed and reburied on Gardiner’s Island in New York.  After narrowly escaping death or serious injury on the Princeton a few days earlier, President Tyler found himself in danger once again as he left the funeral.  Traveling through the busy streets of Washington in his horse-drawn carriage, the President’s horses were startled by the crowds and bolted – leaving Tyler helpless in a runaway carriage until a man bravely rushed out from a hotel entrance and helped stop the carriage.

•••

The comfort of President Tyler in the aftermath of her father’s death changed Julia Gardiner’s mind about marrying the much older President.  Tyler had done everything possible to console her and make her feel safe in the days after the Princeton explosion.  Later, Julia would write that, “After I lost my father, I felt differently towards the President.  He seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man was or could be.” While the loss of her father was certainly tragic, John Tyler happened to be in the right place at the right time, and, in a way, David Gardiner’s death may have helped the romance between the President and Gardiner’s daughter.  Several weeks after the Princeton tragedy, Tyler asked Julia’s mother for Julia’s hand in marriage and Mrs. Gardiner approved of the union.

Still, the marriage was not without controversy.  The wedding took place on June 26, 1844, just a few months after the Princeton explosion.  Julia and her family were still in mourning for Mr. Gardiner, so the wedding was solemn and low-key.  Plus, the President’s family – particularly his daughters from his first marriage – were reluctant to accept his new bride.  After all, Tyler’s first wife had died less than two years earlier, and Julia Gardiner was about the same age as Tyler’s daughters; in fact, she was five years younger than Tyler’s oldest daughter.  One more unique aspect of the wedding was that this was the first time an incumbent President of the United States had ever been married while in office.  Normally, it would be blockbuster social news, but the President’s wedding was kept strictly private.

Accompanied only by his son, John Tyler, III, the President and Julia Gardiner were married at the Church of the Ascension in Manhattan (which is still standing today, at Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street in Greenwich Village) on June 26, 1844.  Very few people even knew that the President was in town until after the wedding when they heard the salute from the guns of warships in New York Harbor as he and his new First Lady departed the city (again, maybe firing the guns wasn’t the greatest idea for this particular couple).  According to one of the only eyewitness accounts of the wedding, published in The New York Morning Express the day after the nuptials, the bride was given away by her brother and “robed simply in white, with a gauze veil depending from a circlet of white flowers wreathed in her hair.”  After the ceremony, the wedding party held a dinner at Lafayette Place before the President and Mrs. Tyler departed the city by steamer, staying the night in Philadelphia, before proceeding back to Washington on a special train the next day.


When President Tyler left office in 1845, he and his wife retired to Tyler’s plantation in Virginia, Sherwood Forest.  They had seven children (in addition to the seven surviving children from Tyler’s first marriage) and remained happily married, despite the 30-year age difference between the husband and wife.  In January 1862, the Tylers headed to Richmond for Tyler’s inauguration as a member of the Confederate House of Representatives.  Tyler was the only former President who did not remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War.  On January 18th, the 71-year-old Tyler died in Richmond’s Exchange Hotel, likely due to complications from a stroke and was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery with Confederate honors.  Widely considered a traitor in the North, official notice of Tyler’s death wasn’t taken until 1915 when Congress finally erected a monument near his grave.


Julia Gardiner Tyler lived until 1889, but two of President and Mrs. Tyler’s grandsons are still living.  With seven children (the last of which died in 1947 – 157 years after John Tyler’s birth!), the Tylers were blessed with a wealth of grandchildren, and Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. (born in 1924) and Harrison Ruffin Tyler (born in 1928) are still alive today.  Harrison Tyler even continues to maintain President Tyler’s beloved Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest.

•••

As for the USS Princeton, well, it never truly recovered from the Peacemaker explosion.  Captain Robert Field Stockton was absolved of blame for the tragedy and went on to fame in California during the Mexican War (he has a city named after him near Sacramento), and later was elected United States Senator from New Jersey.  The Princeton participated in engagements in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican War, but its hull was found to be rotting after the war ended.  It was broken up for scrap in Boston and the Peacemaker’s twin gun – the Oregon – can be seen today on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

During World War II, a new USS Princeton was commissioned.  A 622-foot-long aircraft carrier, the new Princeton engaged in action in the Pacific Ocean.  On October 20, 1944 – 100 year after the explosion of the Peacemaker – the modern Princeton was attacked by a Japanese dive bomber in the Leyte Gulf and 108 sailors were killed.  Even the Princeton’s descendants seem to be cursed.


As Americans prepared to vote in the 1840 Presidential election, the catchiest political slogan that the still-young nation had yet heard echoed throughout a country tired of President Martin Van Buren.  It was plastered on signs and posters, in newspapers and handbills, and on large cloth or paper balls that volunteers rolled through town squares as they sang:

What’s the cause of this commotion, motion, motion,
Our country through?
It is the ball a-rolling on,
For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!
For Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!
And with them will beat little Van, Van, Van.
Van is a used up man.
And with them will beat little Van.

The Whig Party had nominated a hero from the War of 1812, General William Henry Harrison, nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe” for his role in leading American troops against the feared Indian chief Tecumseh, who was killed during a battle near the Tippecanoe River in present-day Indiana.  While the Battle of Tippecanoe had happened nearly 30 years before the 1840 election, General Harrison remained popular and because he had spent so much of his career in the wild Northwest Territory, Harrison had a reputation as a hard-drinking, frontiersman — a man of the people who had been born in a log cabin.   The “Tyler, too!” was 50-year-old Virginian John Tyler, the Whig nominee for Vice President.  While Tyler had not been at the Battle of Tippecanoe, he had a solid resume of service in Virginia as well as the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

The Whigs did everything they could to take advantage of that popular opinion against President Van Buren, who was seen as a New York dandy.  Before he was killed at the Alamo in 1836, another frontiersman, Davy Crockett of Tennessee had said that when then-Vice President Van Buren “enters the Senate chamber in the morning, he struts and swaggers like a crow in the gutter.  He is laced up in corsets, such as women in town wear, and, if possible, tighter than the best of them.  It would be difficult to say, from his personal appearance, whether he was man or woman, but for his large…whiskers.”  An economic panic at the very beginning of Van Buren’s Presidency had stained his Administration from the start, and it was clear that nothing would stop the Whigs from unseating Van Buren and placing a Whig in the White House for the very first time.  When the votes were counted, Van Buren had lost his own home state of New York and lost Tennessee despite his mentor, former President Andrew Jackson, taking to the stump on his behalf.

The hard-drinking, log cabin birth of “Old Tippecanoe” was a myth.  William Henry Harrison had spent most of the 19th Century on the Northwest Frontier, but he lived in a 22-room mansion in North Bend, Ohio and he was born on Berkeley plantation, a sprawling estate of over 1,000 acres which was one of the oldest and grandest homes in the United States.  Harrison’s father was Benjamin Harrison V, one of Virginia’s leading men during the Revolution.  Benjamin Harrison V served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence.  During the Revolutionary War, Harrison was a target of the British because of his leadership role and he and his family barely escaped capture when American traitor Benedict Arnold led an attack on Berkeley plantation and burned much of the estate.  The Harrisons, however, were able to rebuild and William Henry Harrison headed off to medical school.

Seventeen years after William Henry Harrison was born, John Tyler was born.  Coincidentally, seventeen was also the approximate distance in miles that Tyler’s birthplace was from Harrison’s birthplace.  To this day, they remain the only President and Vice President to share a ticket that were born in the same county — Charles City County, Virginia.  Tyler was born at Greenway plantation and, like the Harrisons, the Tylers were a well-off family with solid ties in the Virginia aristocracy.  In fact, the connections between the families run even deeper.

Benjamin Harrison V and John Tyler’s father, John Tyler Sr., served in the Virginia House of Delegates together as well as in the Virginia Convention deciding on ratification of the United States Constitution.  The senior Tyler served in the Continental Army while the elder Harrison served in the Continental Congress.  From 1781-1784, Benjamin Harrison V served as Governor of Virginia, and Tyler Sr. (who had once been roommates with Thomas Jefferson) served as Virginia’s Governor from 1808-1811.  Both Presidential fathers would also later have counties named after them in the present-day state of West Virginia. 

The most remarkable connection, however, took place in 1784 when the fathers of the men who would be successful running mates for national office in 1840 squared off against each other in a campaign for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.  John Tyler, Sr. defeated Benjamin Harrison V for that seat in the state legislature, but the elder Harrison was elected from another district soon afterward and served in the House of Delegates until his death in 1791.  Tyler, Sr. was a U.S. Circuit Court Judge for Virginia when he died in 1813; by that time it was John Jr. who had taken a seat in Virgnia’s House of Delegates.

Amazingly, the coincidental connections didn’t end with the deaths of the Revolutionary fathers of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.  In 1791, William Henry Harrison inherited a plantation of about 3,000 acres called Walnut Grove, near the Greenway plantation birthplace of John Tyler.  Harrison never lived on the plantation and sold it in 1793.  Nearly 50 years later, after the property had changed hands and names and been split into smaller sized parcels, John Tyler purchased part of the original plantation.  While John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams owned the same family property in Massachusetts, the Virginia plantation is the only land owned at separate points by two unrelated Presidents.

When John Tyler purchased the land, he named it “Sherwood Forest”.  By this time, Tyler was President of the United States.  William Henry Harrison took office and gave a marathon inaugural address in freezing cold weather on March 4, 1841 and developed pneumonia.  Just one month after taking office, April 4, 1841, the 68-year-old President Harrison was dead.  Tyler became the first Vice President to succeed to office upon a President’s death and that’s a whole different story — and one I’ve told before.

The actions of now-President Tyler alienated the Cabinet he inherited from Harrison and resulted in the Whig Party basically excommunicating him, as I wrote in the story linked at the end of the previous paragraph.  Tyler finished the remained of Harrison’s term as a man without a party, so when he purchased the former “Walnut Grove” estate, he renamed it “Sherwood Forest” because he felt like an outlaw.  When Tyler left office in 1845, he happily retired to Sherwood Forest.

Harrison was buried in North Bend, Ohio, but his family name continued on.  One of his sons, John Scott Harrison, served in Congress.  And John Scott’s son — William Henry Harrison’s grandson — Benjamin Harrison became a decorated Union soldier in the Civil War, Senator, and 23rd President of the United States.  Tyler left Sherwood Forest in 1861 after Virginia seceded from the Union to accept a seat in the provisional Confederate Congress and was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives but died before taking seat in 1862.  Tyler fathered 15 children during his lifetime, 14 of whom lived to maturity.  Today, in 2012, 150 years after President Tyler died, two of his grandchildren are still alive and caring for his beloved Sherwood Forest plantation.  The big cloth and paper campaign ball may no longer be “a-rolling on”, but nearly 250 years of family ties connect Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.

JOHN TYLER
10th President of the United States (1841-1845)

Full Name: John Tyler, Jr.
Born: March 29, 1790, Greenway plantation, Charles City County, Virginia
Term: April 4, 1841-March 4, 1845
Political Party: Whig
Vice President: None (Assumed Presidency upon the death of William Henry Harrison)
Died: January 18, 1862, Exchange Hotel, Richmond, Virginia
Buried: Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia

It’s tough to make the case for John Tyler as a good President considering the fact that he wasn’t elected to the office, pissed off the Cabinet that he inherited from President Harrison so much that almost all of them resigned, and so clearly abandoned the principles (well, the very few principles that the Whig Party had in 1840) that had landed him on the Whig ticket in 1840 as Harrison’s running mate that the party excommunicated him and he spent part of his Presidency as a President without a party.  Tyler, however, exhibited strong leadership when Harrison died one month into his term in 1841 and basically created what happens during a Presidential succession.  This strengthened the office of Vice President and was eventually codified in the Constitution.  Tyler’s actions in succeeding Harrison were an important precedent in American History, and precedents matter when it comes to ranking great leaders.  It also changed the way political parties choose their Presidential tickets.  Tyler also had some foreign policy victories, particularly with Great Britain and China, and helped to usher Texas into the Union.  We’ll try not to hold that last one against him.

PREVIOUS RANKINGS:
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine:  22 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine:  25 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine:  29 of 38
1990: Siena Institute:  33 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine:  32 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  36 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll:  32 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership:  35 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  35 of 42
2010: Siena Institute:  37 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre:  37 of 40

On February 28, 1844, Dolley Madison was far removed from her time as First Lady of the United States.  Her husband, James Madison, had left the White House almost 27 years earlier and he had died in 1836, but Dolley – now 75 years old – remained a darling of the Washington social scene.  Though she struggled financially, Dolley Madison continued entertaining guests in the nation’s capital and she helped organize social gatherings around the city, acting as a sort of guest hostess wherever she visited.  Now, as the first auguries of spring began their awakening in-and-around Washington, D.C., Dolley had helped plan a cruise down the Potomac River on the newly-built USS Princeton – a showcase vessel for the United States Navy which happened to be one of the most advanced warships of its time.

Launched just six months earlier, the Princeton was the U.S. Navy’s first propeller-driven warship and its Captain, Robert Field Stockton was proud of his charge.  A cruise to demonstrate the ship’s speed, capabilities, and weaponry to the Washington elite would be advantageous to the Navy’s growth and to Captain Stockton’s ambition.  Besides Dolley Madison and the Princeton’s crew of 178 sailors, the ship welcomed over 350 guests, including dignitaries such as Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer, Secretary of War William Wilkins, Postmaster General Charles A. Wickliffe, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and other diplomats and members of Congress.  The most celebrated guest on the Princeton that day, however, was President John Tyler, who had also invited a young woman he had been romantically interested in, Julia Gardiner, and her father, David Gardiner, an influential New York lawyer and former State Senator.

Everyone on board the Princeton had underlying reasons for taking the cruise down the Potomac.  For some, it was to see the Princeton for themselves.  For others, it was because it was the place to be for politicians and diplomats on that day.  Some took the cruise for the opportunity to observe others, and some took the cruise in order to be noticed.  The big draw, however, was a chance to see the Princeton’s two large guns, the Oregon and the Peacemaker, being fired.  Both guns were impressive, but the Peacemaker was an amazing spectacle – at the time, it was the largest naval gun in the world.  The ship was so new and the Peacemaker was so powerful that on the day of the cruise down the Potomac, it had been fired no more than five times, according to Captain Stockton.

In February 1844, John Tyler was entering the final year of a contentious, controversial, and accidental Presidency.  Elected as Vice President alongside William Henry Harrison in 1840, Tyler spent only a month in the Vice Presidency before President Harrison died in office.  On April 4, 1841, Tyler became the 10th President of the United States, but his succession was not a smooth one.  Harrison had been the first President to die in office and the Constitution was not specifically clear about Presidential succession.  To many, including everyone in President Harrison’s Cabinet, Tyler was still the Vice President and only assumed the duties of the Presidency, not the title or privileges (such as living in the White House).  At his first meeting with the men Harrison had appointed to the Cabinet, the Cabinet all but insisted that they would rule by committee and that Tyler had no more power or influence than, say, the Postmaster General.  Many Americans felt that Tyler was merely “Acting President”, and that he was to defer to the will of the Cabinet on all issues.


Tyler vehemently disagreed and the manner in which he assumed office set a precedent that was followed by all future Vice Presidents and was eventually cemented into the Constitution.  Tyler declared that he was not the Vice President or the “Acting President”, but that Harrison’s death and propelled him directly into the office of President of the United States to serve out the remainder of Harrison’s term with the same powers and duties and privileges that come with the office.  Tyler moved into the White House and when his Cabinet balked at his assumption of power, he accepted the resignation of everyone but his Secretary of State, Daniel Webster (Webster eventually resigned in 1843). 

President Tyler’s troubles did not disappear once Harrison’s Cabinet departed.  The slavery question was tearing the nation further and further apart by the day.  When Tyler won election in 1840 as Harrison’s Vice President, he did so as a member of the Whig Party, but he was all over the political spectrum.  As a younger man, he supported Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans and he supported Andrew Jackson during Jackson’s first term before becoming a Whig.  Upon his Vice Presidential nomination, there were questions about Tyler’s Whig credentials, but the Whigs needed a strong Southern balance on the ticket and accepted Tyler.  Now that he was President, Tyler’s independence frustrated his party.  With Whigs in control of Congress and the White House, the party attempted to establish another Bank of the United States now that Andrew Jackson was out of the picture and retired in Nashville.  Congress pushed through a bill creating a new Bank of the United States, but President Tyler betrayed his party and vetoed the bill twice.  So, just months after assuming the Presidency, Tyler was expelled from the Whigs and remained a President without a party until he left office in 1845.

Now, on a warm day at the end of February 1844, Tyler was thinking about whether or not he would support the annexation of Texas.  The President also thought of romance.  In September 1842, Tyler’s wife, Letitia, died in the White House after suffering a stroke.  Tyler was still grieving when he began courting Julia Gardiner in January 1843.  Tyler had met Julia while his wife was still alive, but he didn’t become smitten with her until after his wife’s death.  Tyler and Julia kept their relationship guarded from the public and the President was even secretive about it to his family.  Part of the reason for his reluctance to be open about his feelings was because Letitia had only been dead for a few months when he started dating Julia.  However, a bigger reason was Julia’s age.  When they began dating, Julia Gardiner was just 22 years old.  The 52-year-old President was wary about how his children (he and Letitia had seven children) would feel about him dating a woman who was five years younger than his oldest daughter. 


The age difference also worried Julia’s family.  Julia Gardiner was the daughter of David Gardiner, a wealthy New York lawyer and former New York State Senator.  She was born in 1820 on an island in the Long Island Sound named after her family, and had everything that she wanted or needed while growing up on Gardiner’s Island.  Julia was beautiful and much in demand by the eligible bachelors of the East Coast.  After meeting President Tyler, Julia first tried to reject his advances, but she was certainly intrigued by the powerful and charming Virginian.  For his part, Tyler was madly in love with Julia and he proposed to her in late-1843.  Julia’s mother did not approve of her daughter marrying a man 30 years older than Julia, so Tyler didn’t get an answer.  By inviting Julia and her father to accompany him on the Princeton, John Tyler hoped to show David Gardiner that he could impress the wealthy New Yorker and demonstrate that he could be a wonderful husband to Julia.

•••

Guests gathered at the Washington Navy Yard as ferries transported them across the Potomac River to Alexandria, Virginia, where the USS Princeton was anchored and ready for the afternoon cruise down the Potomac.  As dignitaries boarded Captain Stockton’s ship, they marveled at the size of the two guns on deck and examined every inch of the 164-foot warship.  Music was provided by the Marine Band — “The President’s Own” – and food was served below deck as the Princeton began its leisurely cruise down the Potomac.  As guests explored the Princeton and watched the historic sites on both shores of the Potomac pass by, the massive Peacemaker was fired to the delight of everyone on the ship.  The rounds fired by the powerful Peacemaker were capable of traveling up to three miles.  As the warship cruised down the river the rounds that were fired were aimed at ice floes in the distance which were breaking apart as the sun warmed the Potomac.   The cruise continued, with men mostly on the deck and pretty much all women below deck where food and drinks flowed freely, conversation was genial, and some of the guests were gleefully singing and clearly enjoying themselves.

When the Princeton reached Mount Vernon and George Washington’s sprawling estate came into view, the ship fired another round from the Peacemaker in tribute to the 1st President and then turned around for the return trip to Washington, D.C.  The Princeton’s passengers had gathered below deck for celebratory toasts and to listen to the impromptu singing concert taking place in the salon.  At around 4:00 PM, some of the men requested to witness the Peacemaker be fired again, but Captain Stockton demurred, telling the men “No more guns tonight.”  However, one of the men who wished to see the Peacemaker fired once again was Thomas W. Gilmer, the man who had become Secretary of the Navy just 10 days earlier – a man who just happened to be Captain Stockton’s superior.  Gilmer’s wish was something akin to an order to Captain Stockton, so Stockton headed to the deck and had the gun prepared to be fired once more.

Men began heading upstairs to witness the firing of the Peacemaker while the women remained below deck and continued with their songs and conversations.  President Tyler was heading up the gangway plank towards the deck when he was told that his son-in-law, William Waller, wife of his daughter Elizabeth, was about to sing one of Tyler’s favorite songs.  Instead of heading to the deck, the President headed back into the salon and was handed a drink.  Upstairs, men crowded around the giant Peacemaker for one last firing.

On the deck, Secretary of War William Wilkins jokingly told the spectators, “Though I am Secretary of War, I do not like this firing, and believe I shall run!” before moving to the far side of the Princeton.  The remainder of the guests were close to the Peacemaker and the big gun was ready to be fired.  The Princeton was about 15 miles downriver from Washington, D.C. and two sailors took the final steps for firing the gun.

Instantly, a massive explosion rocked the Princeton and the deck was obscured by white smoke and an eerie silence.  President Tyler rushed up to the deck to investigate what had happened, but what he found was a horrific scene.  The Peacemaker – the largest naval gun in the world – had exploded at the breech.  The powerful explosion tore part of the ship’s deck and the Peacemaker broke into red-hot pieces of iron that flew into the crowd of spectators.  Nobody downstairs was injured, but the deck of the Princeton was a place of horror.  Eight people had been killed and 17 were seriously injured, including Captain Stockton and Senator Thomas Hart Benton.  As President Tyler reached the deck, the silence turned to anguished screams and confusion. 

The President fought through the smoke and found that the toll was high.  Secretary of State Abel Upshur was dead – literally disemboweled by the blast.  Navy Secretary Gilmer was dead.  The Princeton’s Commander Beverly Kennon and two Princeton sailors were dead.  American diplomat Virgil Maxcy was dead.  President Tyler’s slave, Armistead, who had requested and been granted permission from Tyler to view the gun as it was being fired was dead.  And, finally, David Gardiner – the father of the woman that the President hoped to marry – was also killed by the blast, his arms and legs severed from his body by the force of the explosion.  A tearful President was devastated by the loss of two of his Cabinet members, and he headed back down below deck to notify the women about what had happened.  Screaming and crying hysterically, the surviving men kept them off of the deck so that they didn’t see the gruesome scene.

The smoke-filled deck was covered with blood, dismembered limbs, dead bodies, and stunned survivors.  Below decks, the women who had accompanied the Princeton awaited news from above, which quickly trickled downstairs.  Someone yelled, “The Secretary of State is dead!” and the news did not improve.  When Julia Gardiner found out that her father was among those who had been killed in the blast, she fainted – directly into the arms of President Tyler.  Dolley Madison, who had seen much in her 75 years was certainly stunned by the tragedy, but she quickly did her best to comfort the Princeton’s passengers who were shaken and distressed. 

As the USS Princeton limped back to Washington, D.C., John Tyler comforted Julia Gardiner as best as he could.  For the President, his pleasure cruise with the woman he hoped to marry and her father could not have gone worse.  Now, David Gardiner lay in pieces on the deck of the Princeton as Tyler – who was also returning to Washington without a Secretary of State and Secretary of the Navy – tried to console Gardiner’s young daughter, but she remained unconscious until the ship arrived back in Alexandria, Virginia.  

When the Princeton arrived at Alexandria, President Tyler literally carried Julia Gardiner from the wounded warship.  On the gangplank, Julia finally awakened in the President’s arms, and as she later said, “I struggled so that I almost knocked both of us off the gangplank.  I did not know at the time, but I learned later it was the President whose life I almost consigned to the water.”  President Tyler had Julia taken directly to the White House where she spent the next few days recuperating under the watchful eyes of the President and his large family.

The bodies of Julia’s father, the two Cabinet members (Upshur and Gilmer), the Princeton’s Commander Kennon, and the diplomat Maxcy remained on board the Princeton on the night of the 28th.  The injured went to hospitals and homes around the capital city.  The next day, Washington was in official mourning as the word of the tragedy spread and the signs of mourning – black crepe hanging on the White House and other public buildings – were displayed.  As Washington mourned, the bodies of Gardiner, Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon, and Maxcy were transported to the White House, where their flag-draped caskets rested in honor in the East Room.  (It’s safe to assume that President Tyler’s slave wasn’t awarded the same honors – when the bodies were removed from the Princeton, they were all placed in magnificent mahogany caskets, except for Armistead, who was placed in one made from cherry.)

After two days of lying in state in the East Room, Gardiner, Upshur, Gilmer, and Kennon were transferred to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where all of official Washington showed up to pay their respects at their joint funeral (Maxcy’s family took his remains for a private funeral and burial shortly after his body arrived at the Executive Mansion).  It was a solemn occasion – one of the biggest tragedies to strike the United States up to that point, and a significant loss to President Tyler, both professionally and personally.  Tyler was mourning two important members of his Cabinet, and the woman he hoped to marry was burying her father after he had been killed in the most gruesome manner imaginable on a cruise that Tyler had invited him to take.

The funeral started with an ominous and unfortunate signal:  the firing of loud artillery across from the Executive Mansion could not have been a pleasant reminder to those who had survived the tragedy on board the Princeton a few days earlier.  The bodies of Upshur, Gilmer, Kennon, and Gardiner were taken to Congressional Cemetery following the funeral and buried there, although Gardiner was later exhumed and reburied on Gardiner’s Island in New York.  After narrowly escaping death or serious injury on the Princeton a few days earlier, President Tyler found himself in danger once again as he left the funeral.  Traveling through the busy streets of Washington in his horse-drawn carriage, the President’s horses were startled by the crowds and bolted – leaving Tyler helpless in a runaway carriage until a man bravely rushed out from a hotel entrance and helped stop the carriage.

•••

The comfort of President Tyler in the aftermath of her father’s death changed Julia Gardiner’s mind about marrying the much older President.  Tyler had done everything possible to console her and make her feel safe in the days after the Princeton explosion.  Later, Julia would write that, “After I lost my father, I felt differently towards the President.  He seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man was or could be.” While the loss of her father was certainly tragic, John Tyler happened to be in the right place at the right time, and, in a way, David Gardiner’s death may have helped the romance between the President and Gardiner’s daughter.  Several weeks after the Princeton tragedy, Tyler asked Julia’s mother for Julia’s hand in marriage and Mrs. Gardiner approved of the union.

Still, the marriage was not without controversy.  The wedding took place on June 26, 1844, just a few months after the Princeton explosion.  Julia and her family were still in mourning for Mr. Gardiner, so the wedding was solemn and low-key.  Plus, the President’s family – particularly his daughters from his first marriage – were reluctant to accept his new bride.  After all, Tyler’s first wife had died less than two years earlier, and Julia Gardiner was about the same age as Tyler’s daughters; in fact, she was five years younger than Tyler’s oldest daughter.  One more unique aspect of the wedding was that this was the first time an incumbent President of the United States had ever been married while in office.  Normally, it would be blockbuster social news, but the President’s wedding was kept strictly private.

Accompanied only by his son, John Tyler, III, the President and Julia Gardiner were married at the Church of the Ascension in Manhattan (which is still standing today, at Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street in Greenwich Village) on June 26, 1844.  Very few people even knew that the President was in town until after the wedding when they heard the salute from the guns of warships in New York Harbor as he and his new First Lady departed the city (again, maybe firing the guns wasn’t the greatest idea for this particular couple).  According to one of the only eyewitness accounts of the wedding, published in The New York Morning Express the day after the nuptials, the bride was given away by her brother and “robed simply in white, with a gauze veil depending from a circlet of white flowers wreathed in her hair.”  After the ceremony, the wedding party held a dinner at Lafayette Place before the President and Mrs. Tyler departed the city by steamer, staying the night in Philadelphia, before proceeding back to Washington on a special train the next day.


When President Tyler left office in 1845, he and his wife retired to Tyler’s plantation in Virginia, Sherwood Forest.  They had seven children (in addition to the seven surviving children from Tyler’s first marriage) and remained happily married, despite the 30-year age difference between the husband and wife.  In January 1862, the Tylers headed to Richmond for Tyler’s inauguration as a member of the Confederate House of Representatives.  Tyler was the only former President who did not remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War.  On January 18th, the 71-year-old Tyler died in Richmond’s Exchange Hotel, likely due to complications from a stroke and was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery with Confederate honors.  Widely considered a traitor in the North, official notice of Tyler’s death wasn’t taken until 1915 when Congress finally erected a monument near his grave.


Julia Gardiner Tyler lived until 1889, but two of President and Mrs. Tyler’s grandsons are still living.  With seven children (the last of which died in 1947 – 157 years after John Tyler’s birth!), the Tylers were blessed with a wealth of grandchildren, and Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. (born in 1924) and Harrison Ruffin Tyler (born in 1928) are still alive today.  Harrison Tyler even continues to maintain President Tyler’s beloved Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest.

•••

As for the USS Princeton, well, it never truly recovered from the Peacemaker explosion.  Captain Robert Field Stockton was absolved of blame for the tragedy and went on to fame in California during the Mexican War (he has a city named after him near Sacramento), and later was elected United States Senator from New Jersey.  The Princeton participated in engagements in the Gulf of Mexico during the Mexican War, but its hull was found to be rotting after the war ended.  It was broken up for scrap in Boston and the Peacemaker’s twin gun – the Oregon – can be seen today on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

During World War II, a new USS Princeton was commissioned.  A 622-foot-long aircraft carrier, the new Princeton engaged in action in the Pacific Ocean.  On October 20, 1944 – 100 year after the explosion of the Peacemaker – the modern Princeton was attacked by a Japanese dive bomber in the Leyte Gulf and 108 sailors were killed.  Even the Princeton’s descendants seem to be cursed.