If John Tyler is remembered for one thing, it’s establishing the precedent of the vice president taking over for the president upon his death. The Constitution wasn’t very clear on the matter. Fortunately, someone suggested to Tyler that he ought to think about what might happen if President-elect William Henry Harrison, then the oldest man elected to the White House, died in office. So Tyler thought about it. However, when Harrison contracted pneumonia only a few weeks into his term, Tyler was likely surprised he’d have to think about it so soon.
As Tyler took the oath, he earned the derisive nickname “His Accidency.” Tyler ignored it and also refused to open any mail addressed to “Acting President Tyler.”
The second thing Tyler is remembered for is defecting to the Confederacy in his final days in office. The CSA mourned his death in 1862. However, the Union government and states met Tyler’s death with thundering silence. To date, Tyler remains the only former president consider a traitor. But Tyler, being a slave-holding Virginian, had little choice. If he deserves any scorn, it’s for his vigorous defense of slavery.
But Tyler did have some accomplishments to his name. Tyler laid the groundwork to open up trade with China and created relations with Hawaii that allowed annexation and eventual statehood. He managed to chase the British out of the islands after a rogue Royal Navy commander forced King Kamehameha III to sign over control the Great Britain. However, Tyler’s schemes to annex Texas raise some troubling Constitutional questions. He negotiated the treaty secretly, promising Sam Houston’s government military protection if Mexico retaliated. The Constitution requires a president to notify Congress of any military action. Also, Tyler used a questionable joint resolution procedure to bypass the rule requiring treaties be ratified by 2/3 of the Senate. Instead, the joint resolution merely approved Texas’ statehood if the government in Austin agreed to it. (Obviously, they did.)
Tyler did not start his presidency well. He completely rejected the Whig agenda and kicked Henry Clay, the de facto leader of the Whig Party, out of the White House. The Whigs responded by kicking him out.
But it’s slavery that keeps Tyler ranked at the bottom of presidential rankings, perpetually lumped with Pierce, Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson. As a congressman and senator, John Tyler espoused a policy of diffusion, where expanding US territory would help dissipate slavery. During his years in the White House, though, Tyler drifted into an ardent defender of slavery, mainly because he found abolitionists so offensive. Though evidence shows Tyler to have been a humane slave master, he nonetheless showed his racist proclivities by not releasing his slaves in his will and openly warning about a coming race war if blacks and whites had to live on equal footing. In the days leading up to Lincoln’s inauguration, the sixteenth president slammed the door in Tyler’s face telling him he would tolerate no further extension of slavery.
It’s Tyler’s loyalty to slave-holding society that has doomed him to remain at the bottom of presidential rankings.