His Accidency – John Tyler
As seen in The Presidential Visits Series in its entirety: James Monroe to Donald Trump, Michael J. Nighan has researched multiple 19th century presidential visits to Rochester.
Today, Michael reports on visits by former President John Tyler in 1847 and 1851. Locating the exact date in 1847 was difficult. But Michael got a break when finding a notice in Buffalo’s The Daily Courier placing the Tylers in Rochester on September 4th. Next for Nighan was a trip to the Local History Room at Rundel to sift through microfilm of the Rochester Daily Advertiser.
….and (finally) Tyler Too !
Here lies the body of my good horse, The General. For years he bore me around the circuit of my practice and all that time he never made a blunder. Would that his master could say the same.
– John Tyler (1790 – 1862)
One of the great understatements of American history is that John Tyler was an unmemorable president. Indeed, except for being cast as the hind end of “Tippecanoe & Tyler Too”, that most famous of American political slogans, and for the distinction of being the first vice president to succeed to the presidency on the death of the president, Tyler is remembered for little else beside signing the paperwork that annexed Texas to the United States and for bringing Florida into the Union as a slave state.
Indeed, it can be argued that his lowly ranking of 39th out of the 43 men who have held the office of president from Washington to Obama¹ ranks him too generously given that, even counting Benedict Arnold, Tyler is arguably the highest-ranking traitor in the history of the United States, aiding and abetting an enemy of his country by participating in the secession of Virginia from the Union and serving in the Confederate States congress in the last year of his life.²
But in cataloging the presidents who have visited Rochester, we have to take them as we find them. And in the case of John Tyler, after many months I found him here in 1847 and 1851, with other probable but undocumented drive bys.³
A life-long political maverick and states-rightist slave-holder, Tyler began his career in elective office as a Jeffersonian Democrat. But after a falling-out with Andrew Jackson and his anointed successor, Martin Van Buren, Tyler was wooed by the Whigs who needed political balance for their 1840 presidential candidate, William Henry Harrison. Having helped Harrison to beat Van Buren who was seeking re-election, Tyler was anticipating the usual fate of vice presidents, an exile to political oblivion with nothing to do but preside over the US Senate without the ability to participate in their deliberations. But then fate, and perhaps Harrison’s ego, intervened.
Harrison, at 68 the oldest man to take the Oath of Office until Ronald Reagan, apparently felt he needed to prove that he was physically fit for the office. So he opted to stand outside the Capitol Building in 48 degree weather, without a coat, while delivering the longest inaugural address on record (1 hour, 45 minutes). Though there’s debate among historians as to cause and effect, within 32 days Harrison was dead, whether from pneumonia or contaminated White House water is unclear. But in either event, Tyler was now president.
After much debate over whether the succession provision of the Constitution bestowed full presidential authority on Tyler or just made him a caretaker or Acting President, Tyler finally prevailed and made clear to all, that he – and eventually the eight vice presidents after him who were likewise elevated to the presidency by the death or resignation of their predecessor – was as much a president as those elected to the office, notwithstanding that for the rest of his term Tyler’s political opponents referred to him as “His Accidency.”
Almost immediately, the undiplomatic and prickly Tyler ran into trouble with his cabinet and with Congress. As a Democrat in Whig clothing, he wasn’t trusted by either party. And his vetoes of congressional legislation so infuriated his cabinet that five months after his taking office they resigned en masse, save for Secretary of State Daniel Webster.4
Tyler’s administration also wasn’t helped by the fact that in 1844, during a cruise aboard an experimental warship, the U.S.S. Princeton, the ship’s largest cannon blew apart when fired, killing six bystanders, including the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of State (not Webster, he was out by then), and just missing Tyler who was coming up from below decks at the time.5
As the 1844 election drew near, although the incumbent and technically a Whig, Tyler had zero chance of being that party’s presidential candidate. Overtures to the Democrats seeking their backing were simply ignored.
If nothing else, Tyler was prolific. His first wife had died of a stroke in September 1842. Within five months the 54-year old Tyler proposed to the 24-year old Julia Gardiner, who he had met only recently. They married in 1844 and, despite Tyler having already fathered eight children, began raising a second family, with Tyler eventually begetting a total of 15 children, the last when he was 70. Because one of Tyler’s sons also married a much younger wife and was also fathering children until a ripe old age, two of Tyler’s grandson are still living in 2019, 157 years after his death!6
After leaving the White House in 1845, Tyler and his new wife settled into domestic life at Sherwood Forest, his recently-acquired Virginia plantation (and at 300 feet, the longest framed home in America), occasionally traveling to New York City and the fashionable spas at Saratoga. Tyler had chosen the name “Sherwood Forest” in a less-than-subtle reminder to all that he had been “outlawed” by both political parties.
Tyler Comes to TownOn September 4, 1847, on a belated honeymoon to Niagara Falls, the Tylers arrived in Rochester via railroad from
Albany, checking into the Eagle Hotel on Buffalo Street (now Main Street) The Rochester Daily Advertiser, the city’s Democratic newspaper, recounted how:
During the evening a large number of our citizens paid their respects to ‘Old Veto’ and were received with unaffected Virginia cordiality. The ex-president was in excellent spirits, and appeared to enjoy very highly his first visit to Western New York….the attention shown him by our citizens must have been exceedingly gratifying; and it must have been gall and wormwood to the few ‘small lights’ (Whigs) who used every effort to prevent the extension of even ordinary courtesy to one who has occupied the highest office in the gift of a great and free people.
While it’s more-than-likely that the Tylers ended their trip to Niagara Falls and Buffalo by taking the train through Rochester back to Albany, the local papers seem to have made little mention of their return trip.
Come to the Fair
Prior to finding a permanent home in Syracuse, for over 50 years the New York State Fair migrated from city to city around the state. In September 1851 it was Rochester’s turn; the first of eight times the city would host the fair at the Monroe County Fair grounds, located at that time just south of Mount Hope Cemetery.
Pulling out all the stops, the city father’s planned a gala dinner and fête at Corinthian Hall and invited a stellar list of guests including New York Governor Washington Hunt; US Senator William Henry Seward; Horace Greeley; General Winfield Scott; songstress Jenny Lind; Lord Elgin, the Governor General of Canada; and ex-president John Tyler. And as the pièce de résistance, Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglass was invited both to the dinner and to give the keynote address at the fair.
Opening Day, Sept 17, found the fair grounds packed. Given that the various agricultural societies across the state who were sponsors of the event wished that all presentations, “emphasized the educational value of exhibits and competitions”, unlike today’s fair where corn shocks and corny schlock go hand-in-hand, in 1851 concessionaires were required to set up shop outside the fair grounds, leading the Daily Advertiser to describe the scene:
The road leading to the grounds for a mile or more was lined with booths for the sale of liquor or refreshments, besides many large and spacious tents devoted to exhibitions of learned pigs, giants, dwarfs and monstrosities, and indeed every possible attraction to draw attention and lighten the pockets of the country people and boatman on the canal, to whom the occasion was a general holiday.
For an event so packed with politicians, perhaps the arrival of America’s leading showman (or at least his prototype circus) was both appropriate and inevitable:
… emerging from a cloud of dust, appeared Barnum’s Oriental Car, whose motive power was seven elephants, the leader bestridden by an Asiatic whose gravity was well suited to the important function he was called on to fill. The car was of course followed by a long line of covered carriages filled with appropriate stuffings, and from the rush to behold the cavalcade, unmistakable proof was furnished that, however much the press may cry ‘humbug’, the thing is bound to take and that Barnum is the man for the dimes…
After two full days of cattle, cantaloupes, chickens, cabbages and the myriad other farm products contending for awards, the Great Civic Festival at Corinthian Hall commenced at 9:00 pm on September 18.
The next day’s Daily Democrat reported that the 300 guests found:
The hall was elegantly decorated…a canopy of evergreens with flowers intermingled was erected… wreaths and festoons of evergreens were extended along its whole length…three elegant gas chandeliers shed a rich light upon the visitors as they passed into the banquet room….The most tasteful ornaments of this description that we have ever seen were observed on all sides..
At 10:00, the guests sat down to dine at tables elaborately decorated with, “fancy temples of confectionary… and as to good things presented to tempt the palate, there was a noble profusion.”
Jenny Lind, having already appeared twice in Rochester to give concerts in July, was a no show; as were Senator Seward, and General Scott. Nevertheless, the array of political, social and judicial leaders were sufficient to keep the toastmaster, Rochester mayor Nicholas Paine, busy as he coordinated the interminable rounds of post-dinner toasts, replies, and counter toasts that were the custom of the day. Assumedly, as was customary, the ladies had left the men to their cigars and brandy and had congregated in Corinthian Hall’s law library which had been redecorated for the evening as a “ladies’ reception and dancing room.”
Back in the hall, toasts were raised to the New York Agricultural Society, to the City of Rochester, to the governor, to the Empire State, to the army (the United States had just three years prior successfully concluded the Mexican War, making off with about 40% of that country’s territory under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo), to the ex-governor and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and to many others, the toasting, speeches and glass refilling going on for several hours. At some point in the proceedings, Mayor Paine proposed the toast: “The Old Dominion and her distinguished son, Ex-President Tyler.”
Every inch the antebellum gentleman, Tyler stood and graciously responded,
I came here upon your invitation to partake of your hospitalities. I have come here as a listener, and to gather instruction from you, from the experience of the congregated farmers of this State, that I might take to Virginia….you know the attachment of the sons of Virginia to their native State; wherever they go they will bear her impress, and thrill at the mention of her name….The sentiments of the people of Virginia lead to no narrow result. We go back to the graves of our ancestors and we swear to maintain inviolate the compact made by them; they tell us of the common dangers they encountered, the deeds they accomplished, and the government they established, and there is not a man of us who is not willing to shed the last drop of his blood in its defense (at this point the paper reported, “Vehement cheering”)…Wherever we go, the stars and stripes that float over our heads tell us of a common country- a common prosperity, a unity of interest; and we rejoice at the noble exhibitions at this festive occasion…. Let me gentlemen, in conclusion express a sentiment bearing on the present and looking forward to the future. It is this: The first post of safety is to stand by the constitution; the second post is to stand by the constitution; and the last post is to stand by the constitution” (“Great cheering”).
Subsequent toasts included “Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.” Apparently the Governor General of Canada also failed to put in an appearance as he wasn’t mention in the write up as replying on behalf of Her Majesty.
About 1:00 am, the drinking doubtless still going strong, Senator Douglas, having missed his train, arrived and was introduced to the assembly. Never one to pass up a glass or five, it can safely be assumed that he strove to make up for lost time before the gathering broke up at 2:00. Reported the next day’s press of the proceedings, “There seemed to be but one want, and that was wine, in the entertainment.” Whether that was a comment on actual scarcity or a reference to a scarcity resulting from over-indulgence is hard to tell.
The state fair concluded the next day with Douglas’ less-than-memorable, two hour address on the bucolic glories of American life and agriculture; long-winded speeches being mandatory in that print-oriented, pre-sound bite age. Wrapping up their coverage, the Daily Advertiser opined:
We have never known an address of the kind that has been looked for with such intense interest – nor one that has given more universal satisfaction to the thousands of intelligent people who listened to its delivery.
Tyler and his wife left Rochester soon after and journeyed on to Niagara Falls for a second visit, returning a third time in 1854. No doubt they again took the train through Rochester, but without making much of a media splash.As with all US presidents, regardless of their abilities, ineptness, successes, failures, greatness, ignorance, wisdom, patriotism or traitorous intent, once Tyler was dead he become eligible to be commemorated on our postage stamps, coinage and currency. While clearly not worthy of any honors in his own right, Tyler has unavoidably appeared in several series of stamps honoring all presidents, and likewise on a coin issued in 2009 as part of a set of presidential dollars.
1. In the 2017 C-SPAN Presidential Historians Survey, of the 43 men who have served as president of the United States, Tyler was ranked as No. 39, beating out only Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan. Even more embarrassing, Tyler came in one slot behind his predecessor and running mate, William Henry “Tippecanoe” Harrison, a man who held the office for just 32 days.
2. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and as the slave states began to secede, Tyler was elected to serve as a delegate to the Virginia Secession Convention where, after predicting that secession would never result in a civil war, he voted with those advocating that Virginia leave the Union. Picked to head the committee which negotiated his state’s entry into the Confederacy, Tyler was subsequently elected to the Provisional Confederate Congress where he served from August 1861 until that body was replaced by the Confederate House of Representatives. Elected to the Confederate House as well, Tyler died on January 18, 1862 before he could take his seat.
3. I first ran across a reference to Tyler visiting Rochester in a letter he wrote to a friend which his son Lyon Tyler subsequently published in his 1885 book, “The Letters and Times of the Tylers.”. In his letter, Tyler wrote:
I received the Argus containing what is said to be my address at Rochester, but no more resembling it than I do Hercules.
Although the transcription dates the letter as October 13, 1852, Lyon Tyler listed it under 1857 but did mention that the address took place at an agricultural fair in Rochester. Following up this lead, I dug through Rochester newspaper reports on agricultural fairs in both 1852 and 1857 but never found a reference to Tyler’s visit. Finally, after deciding to check surrounding years, I finally tripped over Tyler’s address at the state fair in 1851.
4. Inheriting Harrison’s cabinet, Tyler also inherited his practice, albeit a short-lived one, of letting the cabinet decide matters by a majority vote. Tyler lost no time in making it clear that he, and he alone, would make all decisions:
I beg your pardon, gentlemen; I am very glad to have in my Cabinet such able statesmen as you have proved yourselves to be. And I shall be pleased to avail myself of your counsel and advice. But I can never consent to being dictated to as to what I shall or shall not do. I, as president, shall be responsible for my administration. I hope to have your hearty co-operation in carrying out its measures. So long as you see fit to do this, I shall be glad to have you
with me. When you think otherwise, your resignations will be accepted.
5. In a REALLY strange coincidence, one of the fatalities resulting from the explosion was David Gardiner, father of Julia Gardner, Tyler’s soon-to-be second wife who was also on board as a guest of the president.
6. Editor’s note. Especially remarkable about Tyler’s two surviving grandchildren is that Tyler himself was born in the 18th century. Given the population of the United States in 1790, the year of Tyler’s birth, it is quite possible, if not probable, that the grandsons are the only people in the United States whose grandfather was born in the 1700s.