Review of Norma Lois Peterson’s The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler

Norma L Peterson’s The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler is a well written and elucidating view of the

Cover of "Presidencies of William Henry H...
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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!

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3 thoughts on “Review of Norma Lois Peterson’s The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler

  1. Thanks for your review, I look forward to reading it. Perhaps it will give some balance to my man, John Quincy Adams, response to the death of Harrison . . .

    “At thirty minutes past midnight, this morning of Palm Sunday, the 4th of April 1841, died William Henry Harrison. For precisely one calendar month he was President of the United States. He lies a lifeless corpse in the palace provided by his country for his abode. He was amiable and benevolent.

    The influence of this event upon the condition and history of the country can scarcely be foreseen. It makes the Vice President of the United States, John Tyler, of Virginia, Acting President of the Union for four years less just one month. Tyler is a political sectarian, of the slave driving, Virginian, Jeffersonian school, principled against all improvement, with all the interests and passions and vices of slavery rooted in his moral and political constitution—with talents not above mediocrity. It places in the executive chair a man never thought of for it by anybody. This day was in every sense gloomy—Rain the whole day.

    Mr. Tyler styles himself “President of the United States!” Not: Vice President acting as President, which would be the correct style. To a strict constructionist there is more than a doubt whether the Vice-President has the right to occupy the President’s House, or to claim his salary, without an act of Congress.”
    from – John Quincy Adams: A Spirit Unconquerable!

    1. Thanks for the comment Jim! I am reading a bio/autobio of every President. I started reading them in the early 80’s and decided in 08′ to make a personal goal. I have read books on 26 (really 27 counting President Obama’s Dreams from My Father.) I jumped around at first and then after a summer break decided to go chronologically. So now I am up to Millard Fillmore. I read Marie Hecht’s bio of JQ Adams

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