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The former U.S. president who was more traitorous than Trump

John Tyler, a Whig who held office from 1841 to 1845, was even worse. But his party colleagues did something different from what the GOP is doing today.
Portrait of President John Tyler by George PA Healy (American, 1813 - 1894); oil on canvas, 1859. From the White House collection, Washington DC.
The official portrait of President John Tyler, oil on canvas, 1859.GraphicaArtis / Getty Images

It’s important to keep in mind that Trump is not — yet — the worst ex-president in U.S. history. Trump has made a serious effort to dishonor his post-presidency, of course. He likely has encouraged future insurrections by vowing to pardon the rioters who sacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. And he’s stashed boxes of top secret documents at his home at Mar-a-Lago, raising serious national security concerns.

But John Tyler, a Whig who held office from 1841 to 1845, was even worse. Tyler actually tried to destroy the Union by joining the Confederacy’s war of treason in defense of slavery. Tyler’s treachery is worth remembering as a warning about the real danger a former president can pose. 

Tyler’s treachery is worth remembering as a warning about the real danger a former president can pose.

But this history is also a good example of how principled political leaders can stand up to a rogue president, even at the risk of damaging their parties’ prospects. During Tyler’s presidency, the Whigs actually expelled him from the party when he violated Whig principles. After the party ultimately splintered over the issue of slavery, Abraham Lincoln and William Seward stood fast for the Union that Tyler betrayed. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took a small step in their direction when he announced Tuesday that he would back the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act, which aims to prevent future efforts to subvert elections like those at the heart of the Jan. 6 insurrection. The decision put him at odds with Trump but strengthened the chances that the bill will pass.   

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that all Republican lawmakers will follow McConnell’s lead. And beyond that legislation, Republican leaders have mostly continued to enable Trump’s reckless conduct, as they seem unwilling to defend democracy against his “big lie.” 

Although Trump may never disgrace the presidency as thoroughly as Tyler did, the stain of his actions will mar the legacy of all of his fellow Republicans if they don’t try to stop him before he comes closer. Members of the party of Lincoln would serve themselves and their country best by demonstrating allegiance to democracy rather than to Trump.  

Tyler, like Trump, was a somewhat unexpected president who didn’t originally belong to the party that elected him. A slaveholder from a prominent Virginia family, Tyler began as a Jacksonian Democrat. He broke with the Democrats during the nullification crisis of 1832-33, when President Andrew Jackson threatened to forcibly impose tariffs on the state of South Carolina. In a portent of his later conduct, Tyler believed that so-called states’ rights took precedence over federal law. 

Tyler was nominated for vice president on the Whig ticket in 1840 to provide regional and political balance for Ohioan William Henry Harrison, who was sometimes suspected of abolitionist sympathies.

With the Democrats in disarray after the economic panic of 1837, the Whigs handily defeated the incumbent, Martin Van Buren. But Harrison died one month after his inauguration, making Tyler the first vice president to succeed to the presidency. 

Although there was serious doubt about Tyler’s precise constitutional status — Article II says only that the “powers and duties” of the president “shall devolve on the vice president” — he didn’t wait for clarification. Tyler immediately took the oath and declared himself president of the U.S.

The grandees of the Whig Party, including Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, believed they would exert great influence over the new chief executive, whom many had taken to calling His Accidency. They were quickly disappointed. Like Trump, Tyler had little respect for the party establishment that put him in power. His vetoes of national bank legislation led to clashes with his Cabinet members, who had expected to be the adults in the room.

Tyler’s vetoes led to his expulsion from the Whigs, who nominated party loyalist Henry Clay in 1844. Tyler gracefully retreated to his Virginia plantation, managing his extensive properties and perpetuating the lifestyle of the Southern gentry while summering at a seaside compound not called Mar-a-Lago.

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In 1860, Lincoln got a solid majority of the electoral vote. But many Southerners believed his election was illegitimate and began promoting resolutions of secession. Tyler returned to public life in February 1861 as chairman of the Washington Peace Conference, which was held in a last-ditch effort to avoid disunion. Along with other Southern delegates, Tyler opposed the conference’s final resolutions because there was no provision for expanding enslavement into federal territories, even though they included a proposed constitutional amendment to protect slavery where it existed.

Tyler’s disloyalty became clear even as he presided over the peace conference; he was simultaneously a delegate to Virginia’s secession convention. After Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, he voted in favor of disunion and then chaired the committee negotiating Virginia’s entry into the Confederacy. He was elected first to the provisional Confederate Congress and then to the actual Confederate House of Representatives. His treason ended only with his death just a few days before the Confederate legislature convened for the first time in Richmond, Virginia.

The political issues in the mid-19th century were far different from today’s, but the Whigs’ response to Tyler’s presidency still shows that it’s possible to place principles ahead of expediency. Rather than recast themselves in Tyler’s image, all but one member of his Cabinet resigned in protest of his preference for states’ rights over national policy. Whigs in the Senate, meanwhile, declined to confirm many of his appointments, including several nominees to the Supreme Court. Less than six months after he assumed office, the Whigs expelled him from the party. 

A party’s total repudiation of its own sitting president was unprecedented at the time, and it has never been repeated. (In 1974, a majority of Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted against impeaching Richard Nixon.) The Whigs would elect only one more president — Zachary Taylor, in 1848, who also died in office. Figures such as Lincoln were ultimately unable to cohabit with Southerners like Alexander Stephens, who would be the vice president of the Confederacy, and the party imploded ahead of the 1856 election.

Lincoln, Seward and other anti-slavery Whigs soon formed the core of the new Republican Party, which led the Union to victory in the Civil War. The Whigs’ refusal to embrace Tyler’s presidency, at the cost of splitting their party and losing future elections, turned out to be a small step toward defeating a criminal rebellion and abolishing slavery. Today’s Republicans would do well to take note.