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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

John Tyler's Sherwood Forest

On April 4, 1841, America’s tenuous political climate nearly reached its breaking point. William Henry Harrison, the nation’s ninth President, had died just one month after taking the oath of office. Never before had a sitting President failed to complete his term. The vague rules of succession outlined in the U.S. Constitution caused rampant confusion and heated debates on Capitol Hill. In the midst of this controversy entered Vice President John Tyler, whose actions would forever alter the course of American politics.

Tyler was born on March 29, 1790, in Charles City County, Virginia. His father, John Tyler Sr., was prominent planter and politician. At the time of his son’s birth, the elder Tyler was Judge of the General Court of Virginia. He was later elected the 15th Governor of Virginia (1808 – 1811) and appointed by President James Madison to serve on the U.S. District Court in Richmond, Virginia (1811 – 1813).

Tyler followed his father’s footsteps and pursued a degree in law. He graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1807 and gained admission to the Virginia bar two years later. He worked under Edmund Randolph—the nation’s first Attorney General—until 1811, when he was elected to the Virginia Legislature.

During the War of 1812, Tyler was a proponent of military action. Following the British capture of Hampton, Virginia, in 1813, Tyler organized the Charles City Rifles and served as captain of the company; however, the Rifles dissolved two months later as the threat of further invasion subsided. That same year, he married his first wife, Letitia Christian. The couple bore eight children over the course of their marriage.

In 1816, Tyler was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Politically aligned as a Democratic-Republican, Tyler practiced strict constitutionalism and advocated for states’ rights. He fiercely opposed many principles the Federalist party—centralized government, national banking system, industry-centric economy—but none more so than the issue of slavery. A slaveowner himself, Tyler encouraged slavery’s expansion into the western territories and believed that the federal government had no authority to regulate this peculiar institution. When the Missouri Compromise was brought before Congress in March 1820, Tyler refused to support it, arguing that it would create unnecessary sectional divides between ‘slave’ and ‘free’ states. Exhausted by his futile legislative efforts, Tyler retired his congressional seat and resumed private law practice the following year.

Tyler returned to state politics in 1823, when he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Two years later, he became the 23rd Governor of Virginia. In 1827, Tyler vacated the governorship for another crack at national politics, this time in the senatorial chamber. During the presidency of John Quincy Adams, Tyler and his constituents unsuccessfully lobbied against the Tariff of 1828—also known as the “Tariff of Abominations”—which placed excessively high taxes on imported European goods in order to strengthen the Northeast’s industrial presence in the domestic economy. This created a cascade of national turmoil that plagued American politics well into the Jacksonian Era, climaxing with the Nullification Crisis of 1832 – 33.

In November 1832, the South Carolina legislature adopted an Ordinance of Nullification, which deemed federal tariffs unconstitutional and invalid within their state’s borders. This resolution was spearheaded by John C. Calhoun, a fiery South Carolina politician and Andrew Jackson’s former Vice President. President Jackson, irate over these treasonous actions, threatened to use military action to enforce federal tariffs. South Carolina responded with their own threat of secession if armed interventions were attempted. On March 1, 1833, Congress passed the Force Bill—which permitted the President to enforce federal laws by any means necessary —and the Compromise Tariff of 1833. On March 15, before Jackson could deploy troops, the South Carolina legislature reconvened, repealing Nullification and ratifying the Compromise Tariff, thus ending the crisis.

While these events were unfolding, Tyler watched from the Senate chambers, appalled at Jackson’s tyrannical and seemingly undemocratic aggression towards a southern state. Tyler was sympathetic to South Carolina’s actions—believing they were within the scope of states’ rights—and cast the only senate vote against the Force Bill. Soon thereafter, Tyler defected from the pro-Jackson Democrats and joined the newly formed Whig party—an anti-Jackson coalition founded by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.

By December 1833, the Whigs had control of the Senate. Tyler sat on the Senate Finance Committee and twice voted to censure Jackson for his underhanded Cabinet appointments and attempts to dismantle the Bank of the United States. On March 3, 1835, Tyler was elected President pro tempore of the Senate—the only U.S. President to have ever held that position. He maintained his senatorial status through the 23rd U.S. Congress before penning his letter of resignation to then-Vice President Martin Van Buren on February 29, 1836.

While considered a viable Vice-Presidential candidate for the 1836 Election, Tyler did not garner enough electoral votes to clinch the position. He returned to state politics, but only briefly. When William Henry Harrison secured the Whig party’s Presidential nomination in 1839, Tyler was his logical running mate. He appealed to proslavery southerners, which geographically balanced the Whig ticket as Harrison hailed from Ohio—although his ancestral home, Berkeley Plantation, is located only a few miles away from Tyler’s residence. The duo known as “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too”—a reference to Harrison’s distinguished military service at the Battle of Tippecanoe—soundly defeated Democrat Martin Van Buren in the 1840 General Election, with nearly eighty percent of the electoral vote and fifty-three percent of the popular vote.

On March 4, 1841, Tyler and Harrison were inaugurated into office. Tyler delivered a three-minute acceptance speech on the Senate floor before attending Harrison’s inaugural address on the Eastern Portico of the White House. The 68-year-olf Harrison, determined to display his physical fortitude, orated in wintry weather for nearly two hours—the longest inaugural address in U.S. history—and refused to wear an overcoat, hat, and gloves for the entirety of his speech. Harrison’s address is infamously associated with his catching of “pneumonia” three weeks later; however, modern scholars suggest he developed enteric fever from sewage-contaminated water at the White House. Regardless, Harrison succumbed to his disease on April 4, 1841, making him the first U.S. President to die in office.

Harrison’s passing sent his Cabinet into a frenzy. Indeed, the Constitution had outlined rules of succession following an active president’s death; however, these formalities were ambiguously worded, leaving them open to interpretation. While it was clear that Vice President Tyler was the rightful successor, Harrison’s Cabinet sought to name him “Vice President Acting President”—a “caretaker” to the presidency while exercising the powers and duties of office. Tyler, a strict constitutionalist, disagreed with the Cabinet’s resolution, believing that the Constitution authorized his unequivocal assumption of the presidency. Not willing to pander to useless politicking, Tyler took the Presidential Oath of Office on April 6, 1841, thereby establishing a precedent for future successors, later codified by the 25th Amendment.

Tyler’s overstepping of the Cabinet embittered his relationship with Congressional Whigs. Senator Henry Clay, in particular, was frustrated with Tyler’s refusal to abide by Whig party lines. Tyler believed it was his job as President to set policy rather than Congress or the political machine. “I, as President, shall be responsible for my administration,” Tyler declared to his predecessor’s council, “I shall be glad to have you with me. When you think otherwise, your resignation will be accepted.” The entire Cabinet—with the exception of Secretary of State Daniel Webster—opted for the latter on September 11, 1841, following Tyler’s second veto against Clay’s proposed national banking act. This collective resignation was orchestrated by Clay to force the administration-less Tyler out of office; however, this stratagem was rather ineffectual as Tyler remained in office and expeditiously filled his Cabinet’s vacancies. On September 13, the Whigs officially expelled Tyler from their party, making him a political pariah, A President without a party, Tyler was subjugated to bipartisan ridicule—mockingly called “His Accidency” and the recipient of several dozen letters threatening assassination.

One week before his Cabinet’s walkout, Tyler’s administration passed the Preemption Act of 1841, known informally as the Log Cabin Bill. This law permitted individuals to claim up to 160 acres of public lands as personal property for $1.25 per acre, which incentivized westward expansion and the idea of Manifest Destiny. In addition, ten percent of the preemptive proceeds were distributed to qualifying states to subsidize outstanding financial obligations.

However, the state distribution program did not last long. In 1842, the United States faced a $14 million annual deficit. With the Compromise Tariff of 1833 expiring later that year, protectionist tariffs had to be reinstated in order to balance the budget. Tyler supported such action, but also recognized that once tariffs rose above 20%, the profits from the distribution program would have to be reallocated to the federal government. Whigs in Congress refused to raise tariffs at the expense of state funding and twice proposed resolutions that would unconditionally extend the state distribution program. Tyler vetoed both bills.

During the tariff deliberations, frustrated Whigs organized a committee to investigate the legality of Tyler’s vetoes. Former president John Quincy Adams and Virginia Representative John Botts were the heads of this inquiry. On July 10, 1842, Botts submitted a resolution to Congress detailing Tyler’s alleged deceit and moral ineptitude, going as far to say “…the President [is] a fit subject for impeachment.” Though Botts’s resolution was ultimately rejected by the House of Representatives in January 1843 and no official arraignment took place, Tyler was the first U.S. President threatened with impeachment.

In August 1842, the House Ways and Means Committee—led by chairman and future president Millard Filmore—passed two separate bills restoring tariffs to pre-1833 levels and terminating distribution to the states. These pieces of legislation were combined into the “Black” Tariff of 1842, which Tyler signed into law on August 30.

Tyler was an ardent supporter of American expansionism. With the Preemption Act facilitating westward development, Tyler turned to diplomacy to address tensions along America’s northern and southern borders. First, Tyler’s Secretary of State Daniel Webster met with British diplomat Lord Ashburton to discuss the boundary line between Maine and the British providence of New Brunswick. On August 9, 1842, he two negotiators signed the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which ceded 7,015 square miles of disputed territory to the United States and 5,012 square miles to Britain. Five days later in Florida, Tyler’s administration ended hostilities in the Second Seminole War.

Regarding the Pacific, Tyler sought to expand America’s imperial and economic interests. On December 30, 1842, Tyler announced to Congress that the United States would oppose European colonization of the Hawaiian Islands, thereby placing them under the guardianship of the Monroe Doctrine. This “Tyler Doctrine” strengthened diplomatic relations and laid the groundwork for the eventual annexation of Hawaii by the end of the century. Across the Pacific in July 1844, the Tyler administration signed the Treaty of Wanghia—America’s first commercial pact with China.

Tyler’s most ambitious territorial acquisition was the annexation of Texas. During this time, Texas was a sovereign republic, having declared independence from Mexico in 1836. While Texas citizens expressed a willingness to join the Union, America’s political leaders were disinclined to admit the republic over its proslavery stance. Secretary of State Webster expressed such hesitancy, believing American objectives in the Pacific were more important, but Tyler was adamant. In May 1843, Tyler forced Webster’s resignation and appointed Attorney General Hugh S. Legaré as Acting Secretary of State. Tragically, Legaré died suddenly later that June. Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur was selected to fill the vacancy. Upshur established lines of communication with Texas diplomat Isaac Van Zandt and moderated negotiations regarding annexation. On February 27, 1844, Upshur and Van Zandt drafted the Tyler-Texas Treaty, which promised Texas debt forgiveness and U.S. military support against Mexico in exchange for their territory.

The following day, President Tyler, members of his Cabinet, and four hundred other civilians boarded the USS Princeton for a ceremonial cruise down the Potomac River. The Princeton was one of the most advanced warships in the American fleet, operated by a steam-powered screw propeller and outfitted with two, twelve-inch guns—the ‘Oregon’ and the ‘Peacemaker’—that could launch a two-hundred-pound cannonball over five miles. Captain Robert Stockton twice displayed the Peacemaker’s firepower during the voyage, much to the amazement of onlookers. Following the demonstrations, passengers retired to the below-deck reception.

As the ship approached Mount Vernon, Stockton was convinced to fire the Peacemaker once more. Several dozen spectators gathered above deck as he pulled the cannon’s lanyard, igniting the gun and a devastating tragedy. The Peacemaker’s wrought iron breech—weakened by the day’s repetitive firing—failed to contain the blast, spewing shrapnel and gaseous flames across deck. Two of Tyler’s Cabinet members, Abel Upshur and Thomas Walker Gilmer, were killed instantly, along with Maryland politician Virgil Maxcy, Commodore Beverely Kennon, New York statesman David Gardiner, and Armistead, Tyler’s black body servant. The explosion maimed an additional twenty passengers. Tyler, who had remained below deck, was uninjured.

David Gardiner’s daughter, Julia, was also unharmed, though understandably distraught after learning of her father’s violent demise. For nearly eighteen months, the 23-year-old New York socialite had been courted by President Tyler following the death of his first wife, Letitia, in September 1842. The thirty-year age difference between the couple made for a rather controversial relationship, and the Gardiners had previously declined Tyler their blessing for marriage. However, that sentiment changed in the wake of David Gardiner’s death, and two were wed in New York City on June 26, 1844.

Tyler sought reelection in 1844, but neither the Whigs nor Democrats were willing to support his candidacy. He briefly formed a third party, the Democratic-Republicans, and ran on a flimsy platform that failed to attract much votership. When Democratic nominee James Knox Polk publicly endorsed Texas annexation, Tyler withdrew from the race, merged his party with the Democrats, and threw his support behind Polk’s presidential bid. Polk ended up winning the 1844 General Election by a narrow margin, defeating Whig candidate Henry Clay by less than forty thousand popular votes.

In February 1845, Congress approved a joint resolution approving Texas annexation. Tyler signed the bill into law three days before the end of his term; however, Texas would not officially join the Union until December 29, 1845. On March 3, 1845—Tyler’s final day in office—the President signed legislation that admitted Florida into the Union as the 27th state. Congress bade Tyler farewell by nullifying his veto that would have granted the Executive Branch power to distribute federal funds without congressional approval—the first such override of a presidential veto in American history.

The former President and his growing family returned to Virginia and settled at Sherwood Forest Plantation, far removed from the humdrum of national politics. However, Tyler would once again reenter the public sphere at the brink of the Civil War. In February 1861, he was elected President of the Washington Peace Conference—a war-avoidance convention attended by over one hundred representatives from twenty-one states. Ironically, Tyler was chosen to attend the Virginia Secession Convention on the same day the Peace Conference commenced. After three weeks of deliberations, Peace Conference delegates drafted a resolution recommending a seven-section amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The proposed amendment reaffirmed slavery below the 39’ 30” Missouri Compromise line, endorsed popular sovereignty in western territories, enforced federal obligations regarding the Fugitive Slave Act, and stipulated that any mentions of slavery in the Constitution “shall not be amended or abolished without the consent of all the States.” The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly voted against the proposition on March 1, 1861.

Tyler, himself, opposed the Peace Conference’s final resolutions, believing them futile in their effort to preserve the Union. He openly spoke against the prospect of compromise at the Virginia Secession Convention and twice voted for Virginia to secede. Virginia legislators ratified the motion for secession on April 17, 1861. On June 14, Tyler signed the Ordinance of Secession and was unanimously elected to the Provisional Confederate Congress one week later.

​In November 1861, Tyler was elected to the Confederate House of ​​Representatives; however, just one month before the First Confederate Congress convened, Tyler suffered a stroke and died on January 18, 1862. Though Tyler wished to be buried at Sherwood Forest, his Virginia estate was occupied by Union forces at the time of his death. Instead, the former U.S. President was interred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, underneath a Confederate flag. Due to his status as a secessionist sympathizer, Tyler remains the only President whose death was not mourned in the nation's capital.

The Tyler Family has maintained ownership of Sherwood Forest for the past 180 years. Harrison Ruffin Tyler--who, remarkably, is the President's living grandson--and his wife, Frances, currently manage the plantation's affairs. The historic estate was restored by the couple in the 1970s and has been open for tours ever since. Grounds tours cost $10 per person over the age of eighteen. Those who wish to experience Sherwood's interior must make a reservation in advance and pay a $35 entrance fee.

Sherwood Forest's property, originally three thousand acres, was first patented as "Smith's Hundred" in 1616. The estate's first home was constructed around 1660 but burned down several decades later. In the 1720s, the Minge family acquired Smith's Hundred, renamed it "Walnut Grove," and constructed a three-story Georgian townhome with flanking dependencies over top of the original domicile's foundation.

Tyler purchased Walnut Grove from Collier Minge in 1842 and renamed it "Sherwood Forest" as a slight to Henry Clay, who described Tyler as "President Robin Hood...the outlaw of the Whig Party." In 1844, Tyler constructed two long hallways connecting the dependencies to the Big House. At over three hundred feet, Sherwood Forest remains the longest frame house in the United States.

The dependencies at Sherwood are all original to Tyler’s occupancy, dating between 1660 and 1850. Among these structures are a tobacco shed, milk house, smoke house, overseer’s home, and Tyler’s former law office. Surrounding the home are twenty-five acres of manicured gardens designed by renowned landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. Other attractions on the grounds tour include the Tyler family’s pet cemetery, a shingle-maker from 1878, and Tyler’s proposed gravesite.

John Tyler’s Sherwood Forest is undoubtedly one of the most historic homes in Virginia; although, the $10 entrance fee for the self-guided grounds tour is a little steep considering it takes all of thirty minutes maximum. It was fascinating to learn about this lesser-known President and his private affairs once out of office. I do wish, however, that the family would acknowledge the institution of slavery on Tyler’s plantation. The literature provided by Sherwood Forest makes mention of “field hands,” “house servants,” and “skilled farm laborers” in lieu of the word ‘slavery.’ Addressing this misleading lexicon would help generate a more accurate portrayal of life at John Tyler’s Sherwood Forest Plantation.

For more information on Tyler's life, visit History, the Miller Center, and the White House Archives

Visit the Sherwood Forest website for more information about the historic property and its evolution over time

To learn more about the USS Princeton disaster, visit WETA and Task and Purpose


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