Norma L Peterson’s The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler is a well written and elucidating view of the
dynamics, circumstances, and personalities of the tragically brief administration of the 9th President and the challengingly tumultuous administration of the 10th President of the United States.
Part of the American Presidency Series published by University Press of Kansas, Peterson’s book is a critical and comprehensive look at the Harrison’s election of 1840 and the subsequent assumption of the Presidency by the Vice-President and less a biographical look at either President. With Harrison becoming the first President to die in office, and the immediate assumption of the office by Tyler, a historical precedent was set that immediately sent shockwaves through the government and nation. (The Twenty-fifth Amendment, specifying the succession order upon the death of the President while in office, would not be passed until 1967.)
With the historical nature of the Harrison’s death, politics and personalities in the form of persons such as Clay, Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, and Webster reared its head and expected the temporary President to resign so that someone else, specifically Clay, would become the next President. When Tyler refused, he became the focus of an intense campaign to discredit him, forcing him from the Whig party, and limiting his ability to lead and govern as President.
Peterson chronicles the intrigue and numerous issues surrounding not just the President but the nation at home and abroad. Slavery and sectionalism with the annexation of Texas as a major issue dominated the home front while the most notable successes of Tyler’s administration, foreign policy, seems to disappear beneath the At every point Peterson notes, Tyler, who refused to be the Whig lackey in the White House, battled his opponents on numerous fronts.
And while sympathetic at several turns to Tyler, she is able to demonstrate through her writing just how much the President disappeared in the background of his own administration especially in the final year and months of his administration. Scholarly without being dry; helpful without being pedantic; Professor Peterson’s work gave me pause to consider the impact of President Tyler on the development of the Presidency as it pertained to the succession issue and to the further development, just four years removed from Andrew Jackson, of a strong executive branch of government. Finally, if you think that politics back then was dry and gentlemanly, read this book! You will find that Washington 170 years ago was as tumultuous and contemptuous then as it is today!