John Tyler was referred to derisively as "The Accidental President." Why? He was the Vice-President elected as Old Tippecanoe, William Henry Harrison, became President. Within a shockingly short period, Harrison dies and Tyler became acting President. Since he was the first Vice President to ascend to the presidency, there were no precedents to guide him and the country. One of his major contributions was, simply, to take firm hold of the Presidency and act as if he were President.
This biography does a nice job of introducing us to one of the lesser known presidents of the United States. Edward Crapol, the author, believes that (page 3) ". . .[Tyler] was a stronger and more effective president than generally remembered." If one accept that sentiment by book's end, then Crapol has written an effective work. If one does not accept that conclusion, then this book, obviously, will not be compelling.
Tyler was one of those cross-pressured southern politicians who was, on the one hand, most uncomfortable with slavery as an institution, but, on the other, wed to the ways of the South, which, of course, were based on slavery. Crapol argues that Tyler felt that by expanding the size of the republic, "diffusion" would occur. That is (page 37), "Development over space would thin out and diffuse the slave population and, with fewer blacks in some of the older slave states of the upper south, it might become politically feasible to abolish slavery in states like Virginia." Tyler himself, it should be mentioned, was a slaveholder.
As a result of this "diffusion" argument, Tyler was even more motivated to expand the republic when he became president. He appears to have believed in a national manifest destiny, with the scope of the American state expanding from sea to sea. Among key initiatives that suggested his expansive view of America's destiny: his keenness on advancing American interests around the Pacific Rim (from Hawaii to China); his movement toward annexing the Republic of Texas as one of the American states (as a slave state); his interest in considering California as a potential free state.
Interestingly, some have suggested that Tyler's efforts to exercise power mark him as historically important. The author notes that (page 281) "Arthur Schlesinger, a historian who has traced the development of what he has labeled `the imperial presidency,' credited John Tyler, along with James K. Polk, for the rescue and deliverance of the Jacksonian doctrine of presidential power and independence." In the end, Tyler's desire to serve a second term was thwarted, as the enemies within his party made that impossible.
The last part of his life is somewhat unfortunate. He ended up supporting secession and lived long enough to see the early part of the Civil War.
This book is interesting for making the case that Tyler is a more important figure than often recognized. The author provides good context and enough detail for readers to determine if they concur in that judgment.