The Tenth President of the United States of America
Series on Presidential Slavery
John Tyler (President 1841-1845) was born in Charles City County, Virginia, and was descended from aristocratic and politically entrenched families of English ancestry. The Tyler family traced its lineage to colonial Williamsburg in the 17th century. John Tyler Sr., commonly known as Judge Tyler, was a friend and college roommate of Thomas Jefferson and served in the Virginia House of Delegates alongside Benjamin Harrison V, father of William.
Tyler was raised on Greenway Plantation, a 1,200-acre estate with a six-room manor house his father had built. The Tyler’s’ forty slaves grew various crops, including wheat, corn and tobacco. In 1813 he purchased Woodburn plantation, and resided there until 1821. Tyler was a slaveholder, at one point keeping forty slaves at Greenway. Although he regarded slavery as an evil, but did not attempt to justify it, he never freed any of his slaves. Tyler considered slavery a part of states’ rights, and therefore the federal government lacked the authority to abolish it. The living conditions of his slaves are not well documented, but it was thought that he cared for their well-being and abstained from physical violence against them. In December 1841, Tyler was attacked by abolitionist publisher Joshua Leavitt, with the unsubstantiated allegation that Tyler had fathered several sons with his slaves, and later sold them. A number of African American families today maintain a belief in their descent from Tyler.
On the eve of the Civil War, Tyler as an ex-president, re-entered public life as presiding officer of the Virginia Peace Conference held in Washington, D.C., in February 1861 as an effort to devise means to prevent a war. The convention sought a compromise to avoid civil war even as the Confederate Constitution was being drawn up at the Montgomery Convention. Despite his leadership role in the Peace Conference, Tyler opposed its final resolutions. He felt that they were written by the Free State delegates, did not protect the rights of slave owners in the territories, and would do little to bring back the lower South and restore the Union. He voted against the conference’s seven resolutions, which the conference sent to Congress for approval late in February 1861 as a proposed Constitutional amendment.
On the same day the Peace Conference started, local voters elected Tyler to the Virginia Secession Convention. He presided over the opening session on February 13, 1861, while the Peace Conference was still under way. Tyler abandoned hope of compromise and saw secession as the only option, predicting that a clean split of all Southern states would not result in war. In mid-March he spoke against the Peace Conference resolutions, and on April 4 he voted for secession even when the convention rejected it. On April 17, after the attack on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops, Tyler voted with the new majority for secession. He headed a committee that negotiated the terms for Virginia’s entry into the Confederate States of America and helped set the pay rate for military officers. On June 14, Tyler signed the Ordinance of Secession, and one week later the convention unanimously elected him to the Provisional Confederate Congress. Tyler was seated in the Confederate Congress on August 1, 1861, and he served until just before his death in 1862. In November 1861, he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives but he died of a stroke in his room at the Ballard Hotel in Richmond before the first session could open in February 1862.
Tyler’s death was the only one in presidential history not to be officially recognized in Washington, because of his allegiance to the Confederate States of America. He had requested a simple burial, but Confederate President Jefferson Davis devised a grand, politically pointed funeral, painting Tyler as a hero to the new nation. Accordingly, at his funeral, the coffin of the tenth president of the United States was draped with a Confederate flag; he remains the only U.S. president ever laid to rest under a flag not of the United States.
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