Book: John Tyler: Champion of the Old South
Author: Oliver Perry Chitwood
1. Date- The Great Depression offered many opportunities to re-examine old presidents. As previously seen in cases of Harrison and others, the 1930s contained many scholarly attempts to take the mediocre and weak presidents into a new light. By 1939, Chitwood had decided to throw his hat in the ring and take a fresh look at John Tyler. With 100 years in between Tyler’s public exit and the publication of the work much had changed in the expectations of the presidents. The hands off, small government Tyler must have seemed alien to the pro-active and government centric focus of New Deal Roosevelt. Perhaps that was the point. With the solid South still firmly in the hands of the Democratic Party and Southern Jim Crow in full swing, the 1930s, seemed Tyler’s best opportunity to shine to the modern audience. There are many benefits to having this as the work that stood the test of time. Chitwood makes the 100 years seem much shorter by presenting a readable volume on Tyler. The most impressive aspect is that Chitwood has been able to bring that modernism to light. This work is a bit dated, but like most unknown presidents, this is the best cradle to grave tome out there. With the scholarly lack of interest in the weak presidents like Tyler, it may continue to be the go-to biography on Tyler.
2. Scope- Chitwood’s values closely align with the goals of the project. An ideal scope would cover all aspects of a president’s life. This work uses this scope as its strength. After a great study of his famous father, the pre-presidency of John Tyler is presented soundly leading to the accidental presidency. This firmly lands the reader in the middle of the work. For one half of the volume it seems the perfect rhythm and tone for a complete scope of the man. Then, the presidency begins. With a change, Chitwood throws chronological order by the wayside and goes topic by topic. The result is decent at first but major events are shown out of order, with the reader scratching their head trying to align an already foreign subject matter in a cohesive order. The result is still a complete scope but the potential impact of the events are given a lower ceiling. By conclusion it is clear that the impressive life of John Tyler is complete and the scope is covered totally. Chitwood hits this out of the park, though his inexplicable decision to bail on a chronological layout hurts his attempts at making a transcendent work. All in all, the scope remains one of the strongest points of the work.
3. Author- When Cleaves posted his work on Harrison in 1939 there was certainly evidence that this era was about to be re-visited with a fresh set of eyes. Turns out, Chitwood had the same idea and his work on Harrison’s successor appear just months after the Cleaves work. For Chitwood, this was one of the first public affairs texts he sought out. Other than his biography on Richard Henry Lee, this work on Tyler stands alone for Chitwood as his other publishings cover the eras around his subjects. His attachments to Tyler are obvious. As a result, there are many reasons that Tyler did not receive the most unbiased treatment to his biography. Chitwood and Tyler share an alma mater in William and Mary College and both were a lifelong Democrats. Not just any Democrats. His lament for the disillusioned Southern Democrats oddly and presciently parallels the increasingly unhappy Southern Democrats like himself. After William and Mary, he would go on to be one of the most respected professors at West Virginia University. His affinity for the States Rights mantra grew over time and he clearly admires Tyler as the prototypical example of his political views. Finally, this authority on early American history (many of his works were considered textbooks well in the 1950s) attempted to flex his muscles into ante-bellum politics. His scholarly background is a huge plus, but his biases are obvious to the reader without knowing anything about his background. It can be distracting to say the least. It is his sheer brilliance as a writer that lets this section give Chitwood a pass even knowing how blindly apologist he can be for his subject.
4. Length- The length is perfect. There is no other way to put it. After all, Tyler was a one term accidental president with substantial but at times pedestrian pre- and post-presidencies. Chitwood’s decision to keep the work at 400+ does wonders for the ability to read his work. At a brisk pace one can skate through the unsubstantial moments of Tyler’s life (there are many) without feeling a gap in understanding. The brisk pace can risk leaving out important details. There are multiple instances that Chitwood’s coverage teeters on being insufficient, but his ability to give the bare minimum on inconsequential events is how and where the book shines. He also understands that 800 pages on Tyler would be overkill and completely unnecessary. Though a major impetus for writing the book is to vindicate a smeared former leader, Tyler simply wasn’t a towering enough figure to get a three volume biography. Instead, Chitwood presents John Tyler, whose presidency ended 100 year prior, in a 400+ page work that brings you back in time but always keeps you out of the weeds. It is a foolish tendency for the obvious authority on a subject to write a towering volume. Chitwood’s decision, whether it was purposeful or not, allows a minor presidential figure to get the perfect opportunity to state its case.
5. Mission- Shortly after finishing his work, Chitwood opined, “John Tyler holds a unique place in the history of misrepresentation.” Herein lies the main theme of Chitwood’s work. The total and obvious purpose of the work is to rescue John Tyler from being the worst president of all time. To be fair, Tyler was pretty close to the bottom. Tyler will never get the title of being a “good” president but that does not mean he was not influential to American history. Quite the opposite. When Harrison died in 1841, there was absolutely no precedent for what to do next. Some thought Tyler should be president, others thought he should resign, still others thought he was “acting president” until 1844. When Tyler took the realm by force he changed American history. Chitwood immediately zeroed in on this moment and rightfully gives unsung credit to the actions of Tyler. Though Chitwood could not realize it at the time, Lyndon B. Johnson said multiple times that he stole Tyler’s playbook on how to proceed after the death of John F. Kennedy. When Chitwood is pursing his mission of making John Tyler important, he is at his best. He shatters the all too convenient and cozy idea that great presidents are the interesting ones while the failures are just as riveting and telltales for future leaders. However, Chitwood tips his hand. Inside of making the failures mediocre, Chitwood more than once compares Lincoln to Tyler. This is absurd. The foolish idea that Tyler was just wrong place/wrong time away from being Lincoln is what clouds Chitwood’s judgment and distracts his work. Essentially, the mission is fulfilled, he just takes it way too overboard.