Book: John Tyler: The Accidental President
Author: Edward P. Crapol
1. Date- A very fresh biographical aspect for an obscure 19th century president, Crapol’s work on John Tyler is a refreshing look at the tenth chief magistrate. Originally published in 2006, it was written in the second term of the Bush Administration with an Iraq War crumbling daily and more headaches on the home front. These current events play heavily into the perspective of Tyler. While many antebellum works on presidents usually show a nation divided on an inevitable march to Civil War, Crapol initially set out to write a foreign policy centric tome. According to his notes, he only later decided to jump into the domestic issues in the world Tyler presided over. It is a service to the readers. Until Crapol’s work, the definitive Chitwood biography was seen as one of the few, if only scholarly works on Tyler. The 1939 classic covers many aspects, but there is a noticeable lack of discussion such Tyler triumphs as Hawaii, Manifest Destiny and other foreign ventures. Published in the backdrop of a gigantic nationwide debate on the role of America in the world, Crapol goes back to the 1840s and discusses how the territorial expansion and role of a world policeman predates boilerplate issues such as the Middle East and terrorism. The date here refocuses a narrative and provides a unique look into an infrequently discussed period in American history.
2. Scope- Crapol opens his work with an explorative opening salvo entitled, “Forewarned, Forearmed.” This is Crapol’s attempt to do a flyover of Tyler’s life as someone who on paper was groomed for the highest office in the land. Unfortunately this occurs while saying little if that translates into actually be a good leader. He opens the mind to a fascinating phenomenon very common with presidents where sometimes the most experienced and well exposed men fall flat with the electorate. A contrasting example is a haberdasher from Missouri named Harry Truman into the top five of presidential rankings. Crapol decides to break this tactic of a pre-presidency narrative away from the chronological order. He chooses to focus on a topic driven narrative centered on American expansion and slavery. In these two opening chapters he manages to track Tyler’s Virginian heritage to the Oval Office while hitting the key themes of slavery, domestic discord and his oft named “Tyler Precedent” of presidential succession. It works decently, but it could be a challenge for Tyler newbies or a presidential novice to grasp the importance of his lineage. Once the presidency discussion begins, Crapol chooses a similar flaw as Chitwood. Again converging on the complex mid-19th century issues like he did on the run-up to Tyler’s presidency, Crapol opts to go issue by issue. The results are eerily similar. The disjointed narrative can confuse the reader and thus dampen the impact of key events during the presidency. The linear narrative does not begin until Tyler leaves office. What follows is arguably the best chapter in the whole work. It focuses on the post-presidency and the gloomy march to Civil War. In stark contrast to Chitwood, the “traitor” status of Tyler is hung right around the subject’s head and the closing coda of presidential implications rounds the work up nicely. The scope is bookended with solid narratives on the pre and post presidency, but the presidency simply jumps around too much for this work to get a superior grade when it comes to scope.
3. Author- Like Chitwood, the author of this work shares many aspects in common with his subject. For starters, Crapol sits among the faculty of Tyler’s alma mater at William and Mary. For cradle to grave narratives, this was Crapol’s second effort after the study of perennial presidential contender James G. Blaine. His focus on the foreign policy of Tyler backs up his earlier work on the topic generally with “Women and American Foreign Policy: Lobbyists, Critics, and Insiders” and the intriguing “America for Americans” that hits on Anglophobia and xenophobia generally. His scholarly background is evident from the start of this work right up until naming the final chapter the “conclusion.” By explicitly stating his last chapter as a conclusion, Crapol reinforces an air of scholarly ends. Named Professor of History, Emeritus at William and Mary in 2004, his nearly 50 years as an academic scholar gives him the solid scholarly background to engage in this work at that level. It can be intriguing to see a man of Southern Virginia take up the cause to debunk the states rights legacy of the “Champion of the Old South.” This is a solid background to keep in mind and thus only adds to the interesting and unique look at the tenth president.
4. Length- For a look at one President’s foreign policy in the context of an era, the 250-300 range is average fare for scholars. However, the conscious decision to expand to a cradle to grave narrative usually pushes more meat on the bones. Whereas the balance was perfected for Chitwood at around 400 pages, this updated Crapol work ends up lacking in depth. By steering away from a linear narrative in the Tyler presidency this short work can strangely take on the feeling of being meandering and almost too long despite being one of the shortest works included in this entire project. The choice of bootstrapping the venture also creates a sense that important events are missing from the work. This is not ideal for a short biography, especially one that tries to skate smoothly over all the key events leaving for others to get into the weeds in more complete detail. Through Crapol’s work does not check all the boxes for a short biography, it does stand as a better hope than Chitwood’s to be an introductory work. While the 1939 classic comes close to being the epic untouchable study, Crapol’s stands dangerously close to almost be a serial volume. The result is a clear opportunity for growth. There is a real chance for another author to write a short biography on Tyler that could sweep this work from prominence. However, the almost total lack of interest in Tyler from a scholarly perspective does not make that seem likely anytime soon.
5. Mission- Crapol writes in the acknowledgments that he wanted to “focus primarily on analyzing John Tyler’s foreign policy initiatives and achievements during the years of his presidency, 1841-1845.” He explains that this work gradually became a project to write about Tyler’s life on a complete scale. The result is a mission accomplishment on the original front but lacking on the latter. The foreign policy exploration stands completely unique with great discussions on Anglophobia, Hawaii and other foreign policy issues. Crapol’s grasp on these issues is clear and his mastery of the era is on full display throughout the biography. There certainly is nothing awful about his study of the other aspects, but there is still a sense of an incomplete mission. Very little is explored of John Tyler, the man. After all, he fathered 15 children (that we are sure of) with two grandchildren still alive. While Chitwood greatly benefitted from tracking down Tyler descendants, there seems less of an interest on Crapol’s part to round out the personal touch of the tenth president. This is a political biography for sure, focusing on the public works of John Tyler. However, a self proclaimed and conscious decision to venture into “full scale biography” brings with it a more difficult and involved mission. America in 2006 loved pointing to George W. Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln prematurely proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.” Crapol does the reading public a tremendous service exploring a new aspect of Tyler’s presidency, but as a biography this mission is unaccomplished. Great updated work but one that has achieved this status largely by default.