John Tyler (1841-1845)

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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.

Grade: B+

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.

Grade: B-

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.

For Crapol’s discussion of his work check out this great piece on C-Span

Grade: A

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.

Grade: B-

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.

Grade: B-

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John Tyler (1841-1845)

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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.

Grade: B

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.

Grade: A-

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.

Grade: B-

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.

Grade: A

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.

Grade: B