By Maura James
John Tyler, tenth president of the United States, died January 18, 1862. Historians typically do not associate Tyler with the Civil War period. The Tyler presidency was often called an ‘accident’, and it is notable that Tyler’s Whig party expelled him during his presidency. The annexation of Texas was Tyler’s last, and probably most memorable, act in office. Tyler is best known for concessions during his presidency that later led to the Civil War. Although Tyler owned slaves, he believed the institution of slavery would end if left alone. “He had denounced the conception of slavery. His solution to its eventual disappearance, however, hinged on the theory of ‘dispersion” (Kleber 700). In addition to his presidency, Tyler became very active in Virginia and Confederate politics shortly before his death.
In hopes of saving the Union, Tyler petitioned Virginia to lead a peace conference in Washington in January 1861. On February 4th, ironically the same day the Confederate States of America declared themselves a separate nation, Tyler convened with other state representatives in Washington. Since Virginia had not yet seceded, Tyler hoped his home state could lead the delegation in a peaceful resolution to the pre-Civil War activities. The Washington Peace Conference organized an agenda and took their findings to President Buchanan. Buchanan dismissed Tyler and stated he would leave the new problem of secession to his successor, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, too, was wary of the Conference. He confided in close friend Orville Browning that “no good results would come out of it” (Holzer). After Lincoln was inaugurated, the peace committee communicated with him directly. The delegation hoped the new president would negotiate compromise to keep the fragile peace, but Lincoln held firm to the notion that he was elected to defend the Union and the then recent assaults on it.
When Virginia seceded on April 17, 1861, shortly after the shots were fired at Fort Sumter, “Tyler threw his… support to the new confederacy” (Kleber 703). While Tyler had been urging peace in Washington earlier in 1861, he had also served in the provisional Confederate Congress. After the U.S. Senate and Lincoln rejected the Washington Peace Conference’s plan, Tyler urged Virginia to secede. He was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives. After moving to Richmond to fulfill his role in the new Confederate government, Tyler suffered a stroke. “Six days later he died” (Kleber 703); even before Tyler started his work as a Confederate Congressman.
John Tyler was a man of ‘firsts’. He was the first Vice President to become President after his predecessor died in office. Some even claim he was the first and only American president to die on foreign soil; as he died in the Confederate States of America which were not part of the Union in 1862. He was also the founder of the Washington Peace Conference. A conference that, although was unsuccessful, hoped to alleviate the pressures of civil war. Lincoln stood in defiance to the group, not because he did not want peace, but because he knew, by 1861, the time for compromise was over.
Ms. James is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
Kleber, Louis C. “John Tyler.” History Today 25.10 (1975): 697. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 13 Jan. 2011.
Holzer, Harold. “Give Peace a Chance.” America’s Civil War 23.6 (2011): 44-49. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 13 Jan. 2011.