A United States President


John Tyler Gravesite, Richmond, VA Courtesy Wikimedia

Pardon me for not writing much lately because everything seems so contentious, so I avoid writing anything that might be offensive to the President, Congress, any City Council, or PTA, anywhere.

It’s not as if I don’t like writing about politics and presidents. With my love of history–considering I’m a historical figure myself–I naturally, I find them fascinating. However, I’ve decided to limit myself to politicians from the 19th century or earlier, one of the most fascinating of whom is John Tyler, our tenth president.

Originally a Democrat, he became a member of the Whig political party (gotta love the name–and it has nothing to do with hair!). The Whigs did not have a platform, choosing instead to campaign against Martin Van Buren and the Democrats, blaming them for the poor economy that had begun three years before the election.

The Whig’s candidate, William Henry Harrison was elected president in 1840 with John Tyler (“Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” was their slogan) as his vice president. Harrison died of pneumonia 31 days after being inaugurated, and before the cabinet could declare Tyler as “Acting President,” he assumed the title of “president.” He was derided, behind his back, as “His Accidency.”

As president, he was often at odds with the mainstream members of his party; he was a fan of tariffs and frequently vetoed bills–even those from his own political party. His reason was that he believed the president–not Congress–should set policy. Members of his cabinet resigned and a number of his nominees for the cabinet were rejected by Congress. There was talk of impeachment, and the Whigs expelled him from his own party. One of his major efforts was to annex Texas to protect it from Mexico, although Texas statehood did not occur while he was in office.

After the attack on Fort Sumter, Tyler signed Virginia’s Ordnance of Secession in November, 1861 and was appointed to the Confederate House of Representatives. He died before the first session in February 1862.

Tyler was the only President of the United States whose casket was draped with a foreign flag (the flag of the Confederacy). He was also the only president who was named an “Enemy of the State.”

How Did Washington Get Broken?

The United States is sometimes referred to as an experiment in liberty; we were the first to try a Democratic Republic, so calling it an experiment–even after 229 years–is not inappropriate. The formula, if you will, for the experiment is the US Constitution–an imperfect document written by imperfect men–but a masterpiece nevertheless. Thirty-three amendments to the Constitution have been proposed, of which 27 have been ratified by the states and become law.

The Constitution created three branches of government: the legislature, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives, to write law; the judiciary, which interprets law to ensure that it is not in conflict with the Constitution; and the executive branch to carry out the laws.

At some point, it seems that the legislature abdicated much of its authority and many of its responsibilities. Their focus was on getting re-elected, rather than looking out for the country as a whole, at least for anything that might be politically unpopular. The change happened so gradually that no specific time can be discerned as to when it happened. Some say during the Kennedy Administration, others point to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” while others say it’s always been that way.

The Judiciary picked up some of the slack, using judgments to fill in the blanks where written law was insufficient or inadequate. Much of the credit for whatever progress we’ve made in civil rights, especially for African-Americans, belongs to law created by judicial rulings.

In the meantime, the Executive Branch also got into the fray–with a vengeance. Many agencies under the Executive Branch were able to write their own rules, have internal administrative law judges to interpret them, and act as law-giver, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner.

Then, of course, there are the Executive Orders that look like law, walk like law, and quack like law. Executive orders are much more effective than the bully pulpit.

So, today, we have a Congress that is essentially a theatrical production. Members spend most of their time promoting their own particular interests; this is why, if you watch C-SPAN, you’ll see members of Congress making impassioned speeches to a virtually empty room. The judiciary, for good or for ill, tries to make sense of the law that does exist, and the Executive branch charges off in whichever direction the current president pleases.