Tyler, John

As U.S. president, Tyler was a states’ rights advocate raised in the Democratic-Republicanism of the Jeffersonian era. He succeeded only once in six tries to have a Supreme Court nomination approved.

The son of a prominent Virginia family, Tyler graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1807. He studied law under his father, a former governor of Virginia, and passed the bar in 1809. He was a member of the Virginia state legislature in 1811-1816, 1823-1825, and in 1839. From 1817 to 1821, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was elected governor of Virginia in 1825, advocating strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and states’ rights, then in 1827 became a U.S. senator, a post he would hold until 1836.

John Tyler

(Library of Congress)

As a Democrat and a states’ rightsStates’ rights advocate, Tyler was selected as the Whig Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1840 to bring the southern vote to the Whig ticket. After President William Henry Harrison’s sudden death, he became president on April 4, 1841. His claim to the rights, privileges, and title of the president established an important succession precedent. However, he soon found himself in frequent conflict with Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, who aspired to the presidency. The rivalry between the two men over tariffs, a national bank, the Independent Treasury Act, and the distribution of funds from the sale of public lands led to Tyler’s return to the Democratic Party in 1844 and affected the selection process for nominations to the Supreme Court.

The January, 1844, death of Justice Smith Thompson provided President Tyler with the opportunity to fill a vacancy on the Court. His first nominee, John C. Spencer,Spencer, John C. an anti-Clay Whig, was rejected by the Senate. He appointed Reuben H. Walworth,Walworth, Reuben H. but the nomination was tabled and later withdrawn. He nominated Judge Edward KingKing, Edward for first the Thompson vacancy then a second vacancy created by the death of Justice Henry Baldwin. Both nominations were formally tabled, and later withdrawn, partly because of anti-Tyler sentiment. In the closing months of his presidency, Tyler submitted the names of New York state chief justice Samuel NelsonNelson, Samuel and former U.S. district attorney John M. ReadRead, John M. for Senate confirmation. Nelson, a nationally popular jurist, was easily confirmed, but Read was rejected because of his antislavery bias.

Four Court decisions were nationally significant for the Tyler presidency. In Groves v. Slaughter[case]Groves v. Slaughter[Groves v. Slaughter] (1841), the Court decided that the federal government did not have the exclusive right to regulate interstate commerce, allowing Mississippi to ban slave importation from other states. In Swift v. Tyson[case]Swift v. Tyson[Swift v. Tyson] (1842), the Court established federal jurisdiction over commercial law. Prigg v. Pennsylvania[case]Prigg v. Pennsylvania[Prigg v. Pennsylvania] (1842) created the greatest controversy for Tyler. The federal government was given exclusive power to enforce the fugitive slave laws, denying states jurisdiction in this matter. The president’s refusal to use federal troops to suppress the 1842 Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island against a legally elected state government was affirmed in Luther v. Borden[case]Luther v. Borden[Luther v. Borden] (1849).

Further Reading

  • Newmyer, R. Kent. The Supreme Court Under Marshall and Taney. Reprint. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1986.
  • Peterson, Norma Lois. The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989.
  • Swindler, William F. “John Tyler’s Nominations: Robin Hood, Congress, and the Court.” In Yearbook, Supreme Court Historical Society. Washington, D.C.: Supreme Court Historical Society, 1977.
  • Walker, Jane C. John Tyler: A President of Many Firsts. Blacksburg, Va.: McDonald & Woodward, 2000.

Commerce, regulation of

Groves v. Slaughter

King, Edward

Luther v. Borden

Nelson, Samuel

Prigg v. Pennsylvania

Read, John M.


Spencer, John C.

Swift v. Tyson

Walworth, Reuben H.