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John Tyler and Sherwood Forest

By John T. Marck

           John Tyler is known as the nation's first "President by an act of God." William Henry Harrison, his predecessor, at his inaugural, gave a rambling two-hour speech outdoors in freezing weather without his coat and hat. One month later he was dead. 

Tyler, who had returned to his Virginia plantation after the inaugural was rushed to Washington following the death of Harrison, to fill the vacant presidency. Because no President had ever died in office before, some believed that Tyler was merely an acting or interim President. But they would be wrong. Tyler firmly asserted that the Constitution gave him full and unqualified powers of office and had himself sworn in immediately as President, which by doing so, settled a critical precedent for an orderly transfer of power following a President's death. 

Tyler feared that he may alienate Harrison's supporters, thus he decided to retain his entire cabinet, even though several members were openly hostile to him, and resented his assumption of the office. When President Tyler vetoed a bill to resurrect the Bank of the United States, his entire cabinet resigned in protest, with the exception of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, as he was in the midst of negotiations with Great Britain. During Tyler's second year in office, the Whigs, led by Henry Clay, expelled him from the party and tried to have him impeached. Unsuccessful in this, the Whigs settled for one of their committees passing a resolution of censure against Tyler.

John Tyler was born on March 29, 1790 in Charles County City, Virginia, as was William Henry Harrison.  Like Harrison, Tyler was the son of a planter-politician who served as governor of the state.  

After graduation from William and Mary College at the age of seventeen, Tyler studied law and was admitted to the bar at nineteen.  Within two years he began his political career by winning election to the Virginia Legislature.  In 1813 he served briefly as a captain of militia, and on his 23rd birthday, married Letitia Christian. He and Letitia had eight children and enjoyed a marriage that lasted thirty years, until her death in the White House in 1842. 

The voters of Virginia bestowed every honor on the likable Tyler, whom for relaxation, played the violin and wrote poetry.  At the age of 26 he was elected to Congress, and at 35 he became governor. One year later he would be elected as a US senator. 

Originally a supporter of Andrew Jackson in the election of 1828 and 1832, Tyler broke away from him over the issue of secession and nullification... Tyler was the only senator to vote against the Force Bill that gave the President the authority to use military force, and if necessary to collect federal revenues, a threat that was aimed by South Carolina nullifiers. Later that year Tyler voted with the majority of senators to censure Jackson for withdrawing federal deposits from the Bank of the United States.

In 1836, Tyler was instructed by the Virginia legislature, which was controlled by supporters of Jackson, to vote for a resolution expunging the censure of Jackson from the Senate record.  Tyler refused, and rather than comply, resigned his senate seat. This gave rise to the Whigs that the disaffected Democrat would be a strong candidate for vice-president.  Even though the Whigs lost the election in 1836, Tyler did make a good showing, gathering 47 electoral votes.  

In 1838, Tyler won the election to the Virginia legislature as a Whig, and received the honor of being chosen as Speaker-of-the-Lower House. The following year he was unsuccessful for his bid for re-election to the US Senate, and the voting ended in a temporary deadlock with no one selected to fill the vacancy.  

In December 1839, at the Whig National Convention in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Tyler was nominated for Vice President as the running mate for William Henry Harrison.  The "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" victory made Tyler Vice President, and one month later to his astonishment and that of others, he was President.  

It was Tyler's plan as Vice President to take no part in discussions concerning cabinet appointments and as well to play an unobtrusive role in the government.  These plans of course were short-lived, as he was roused from his bed at dawn on April 5, when he learned of the news of Harrison's death. 

While Tyler made it clear who was boss, Henry Clay and other Whig leaders were confident they could control him by the majority they held in both houses.  He refused to accept that all decisions be put to a majority vote, saying, "I can never consent to being dictated to." When the special session convened in May to address the national economic crisis, Clay began pushing through legislation for a new national bank, even though Tyler warned that he believed this to be unconstitutional.  When Tyler vetoed the measure that August, Clay was enraged because he did not have the votes to override the veto.  It was this event that gave rise to the resignation of his cabinet, except Webster, and two days later, the Whig party expelled Tyler. 

Beleaguered, Tyler replaced his Cabinet with conservative Democrats, starting a chain of appointments that gave Tyler the distinction of having more Cabinet changes that any other single-term President.  Congress continued to pass legislation that it knew Tyler would accept.  In the summer of 1842, Tyler twice vetoed bills that called for higher tariffs, bringing cries from the Whigs that he should be impeached. With the public treasury almost empty, he signed a tariff measure to raise needed revenue, but this did not stop the impeachment attempt. This was brought to a vote in the House in January 1843, but was defeated 27 to 83.  

Tyler's administration was more successful in foreign relations than domestic affairs. One of his achievements, with the help of Daniel Webster was the conclusion of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty that settled a long-standing dispute over the boundary between Maine and Canada. Another achievement was the 1844 treaty with China that opened trade with American merchants. 

In February 1844, an unusual tragedy struck his administration. President Tyler and a large party of friends were on a cruise down the Potomac River on the newly powered steam warship Princeton.  Suddenly one of the ship's guns exploded, killing several of the guests, including Secretary of State Abel B. Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer.

Among the guests on the cruise was a 23-year-old New York socialite named Julia Gardiner, whose family owned 3,000-acre Gardinerís Island off the eastern tip of Long Island.  Julia had already shocked society by letting her be pictured in newspaper advertisements endorsing a dry goods store.  Julia's father, David Gardiner was one of the guests who were killed in the explosion. After the tragedy, it was Tyler himself who carried Julia off the warship to the safety of a rescue ship, winning her heart in the process. Four months later, 54 year-old Tyler married Julia in a private church ceremony in New York City. Although Tyler enemies laughed at the May-December marriage, it was a long and happy one, with whom he had seven children. 

When the election year of 1844 came around, Tyler found himself in the unusual position of having no party to nominate him for re-election, so he organized the new Democratic-Republican party and campaigned on the issue of obtaining the annexation of Texas, an issue opposed by Clay, the Whig nominee, and Van Buren, the person who seemed likely to be the Democratic nominee. 

But then the Democrats nominated James K. Polk, one who favored the Texas annexation, so Tyler withdrew at the urging of Andrew Jackson, which in turn insured Clay's defeat and the election of Polk.  

Following Polk's election, Congress passed a joint House-Senate resolution approving the annexation of Texas, and Tyler signed it on March 1, 1845.  On this day in office March 3, Tyler also signed legislation admitting Florida as the 27th state. Also on March 3, an event occurred that was the first time in history that a presidential veto had been overridden by Congress.  By a vote of two-thirds of the House, they overturned a minor piece of legislation concerning the building of revenue cutters.

 Sherwood Forest and Tyler's Last Years

For many years, Tyler enjoyed the pleasant life at his Charles City County estate, known as Sherwood Forest, so named by Tyler for his Robin Hood type demeanor, as a political outlaw.   

Sherwood Forest Plantation has been in continuous residence of the Tyler family since the President purchased it in 1842. Known as the longest frame house in America, it is over 300 feet long. Elegantly furnished with Tyler's possessions, it reflects the lifestyle of this mid-19th century Presidential family.  A beautifully wooded landscape that consists of 25 acres of terraced gardens, serene woodlands and lawn and 12 dependencies surround the former President's home.   

The plantation was first recorded in a 1616 land grant, and was originally known as Smith's Hundred.  The house, circa 1720 is a classic example of Virginia's Tidewater design; a big house, little house, colonnade and kitchen. William Henry Harrison inherited part of the current Sherwood Forest Plantation in the late 18th century.  It had several owners before Tyler purchased the home and its surrounding 1,600 acres in 1842. He bought the plantation from his cousin, Collier Minge, while he was still in the White House, and gave it its name while still President.  

Today, the President's ancestors Harrison Tyler, and his wife Payne reside there.  Known as the longest frame house in the US, Tyler expanded it to over 300 feet in length by adding a 68-foot ballroom catering to the popular dance of the time, the Virginia Reel.   Sherwood Forest Plantation is considered one of the most complete plantation yards left in America, dating from 1680.

Also of interest here is the legend of the "Gray Ghost," who at times occupies the spacious rooms that include a family room. This two‑hundred plus year‑old lady, legend says, descends a hidden staircase each night and rocks till dawn in a non‑existent rocking chair. Seen by Payne Tyler in the past, she has had "talks" of understanding with the "gray lady," basically saying that there is in effect, room for all of the residences at the house, and that she is not leaving.  This "talk" seemed to work, as she has not seen the "ghost" lately.     

           Tyler involved himself in pre-Civil war ideals, urging the state of Virginia to join the other seceding states.  In November 1861, Tyler was elected a Virginia representative to the Confederate Congress.  While preparing to attend the first session of the Confederate Congress in Richmond, the 74 year-old former President died in his hotel room a few minutes after midnight on January 18, 1862.  

Quick Biographical Facts:


10th President

Term- April 4, 1841 to March 4, 1845

Whig Party

Birth: "Greenway", Charles City County, Virginia, March 29, 1790.

Ancestry: English


First Marriage: "Cedar Grove", Plantation, New Kent County, Virginia, March 29, 1813 to Letitia Christian, who was born on Cedar Grove Plantation, New Kent County, Virginia, November 12, 1790.  Letitia died at the White House, Washington, D.C. on September 10, 1842 and is buried at Cedar Grove Plantation, Kent County, Virginia.

Second Marriage: New York, New York, June 26, 1844 to Julia Gardiner, who was born on Gardiner's Island, New York, May 4, 1820.  Julia died in Richmond, Virginia, July 10, 1889 and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

Children: (by first wife): Mary (1815-1848); Robert (1816-1877); John (1819-1896); Letitia (1821-1907); Elizabeth (1823-1850); Anne Contesse (1825-1825); Alice (1827-1854); Tazewell (1830-1874).

Children: (by second wife): David Gardiner (1846-1927); John Alexander (1848-1883); Julia (1849-1871); Lachlan (1851-1902); Lyon Gardiner (1853-1935); Robert Fitzwalter (1856-1927); Pearl (1860-1947).

Home: "Sherwood Forest", Charles City County, Virginia.

Religion: Episcopalian

Education: Local Virginia schools; graduated from William and Mary (1807)

Occupation before Presidency: Lawyer

Military Service: Captain, Volunteer Army (1813).

Pre-Presidential Offices: Member of Virginia House of Delegates; U.S. Senator and Representative; Governor of Virginia; Vice President.

Age at Inauguration: 51

Tyler Administration: Vice-President: None; Inauguration April 6, 1841, Indian Queen Hotel, Washington, D.C.

Occupation after Presidency: Lawyer

Death: Richmond, Virginia, January 18, 1862.

Cause of Death: Bilious Fever at age 71.

Place of Burial: Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond.

Interesting Facts: 

  • Tyler was the first Vice-President who succeeded to the Presidency because of the death of his predecessor, William Henry Harrison.

  • Tyler returned much of the mail he received unopened because he objected to it being addressed to The Acting President. At the time, many officials wanted him to use this title, being the first Vice President to succeed a President who died in office.


Copyright © 1992-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved.   Informational assistance from Sherwood Forest, Home of President John Tyler, 14501 John Tyler Highway, Charles City, Virginia, and The American Presidents by David C. Whitney and Robin Vaughn Whitney (Revisions), Copyright © 1967, 1969, 1975, 1978, 1982, and 1985, Doubleday Book and Music Clubs, Inc.  Additional information from "The Presidents of the United States,"  by John T. Marck. Photographs of Sherwood Forest, Copyright  John T. Marck

 A Splendid Time Is Guaranteed For All