David R. Henderson  

Jeff Hummel's Case for Martin Van Buren over Tyler

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Last weekend, I posted about who should be on Mt. Rushmore. In the comments, there was discussion about who was the greatest American president. Ivan Eland, not a commenter but a friend who has written a book on the subject, favors John Tyler. Jeff Hummel, not a commenter but a friend who has written a long article on one particular president (Van Buren) and a book on another (Abraham Lincoln), favors Van Buren.

Jeff wrote me a comment on the debate, in which he spelled out the case for Van Buren over Tyler and for putting Tyler roughly in the middle of the 43 presidents. Here it is, with slight editing after I received his permission to edit:

I think it is a serious error to rank John Tyler among the least bad presidents in U.S. history. In fact, I rank him the 19th worst. That makes him worse than Carter, Nixon, and Andrew Johnson, among others. He gets high ranks from Ivan Eland because of his prominent vetoes of Henry Clay's attempts to re-establish a national bank and raise tariffs. But this ignores the respects in which Tyler was on board with Clay's "American System." Tyler eventually signed and supported the tariff increase of 1842 which reversed the steady decline in duties that had been negotiated and ongoing since 1833. He supported repeal of the Independent Treasury, which had brought about complete national deregulation of the financial system under Van Buren, and thereby returned to the corrupt policy of having the national government use "pet" state banks. (Tyler's successor, Polk, reinstituted the Independent Treasury and started tariff rates back down again.) Tyler initially even went along with Clay's distribution of the surplus to the states, the nineteenth-century version of revenue sharing. He also signed into law a voluntary bankruptcy bill of 1842 that the Whigs themselves were embarrassed into repealing the following year.

Tyler was a Virginia slaveowner, and his support of the Slave Power was evident in his reversing of Van Buren's policy and initiating the annexation of Texas, which helped to bring on the Mexican War. Also, Tyler's Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, demanded from Britain the return of slaves who had mutinied on the U.S. slave ship Creole and then been freed by the British authorities in Nassau. Fortunately, the British did not comply, but they did pay the U.S. damages in 1855 after arbitration.

Equally bad, Tyler threatened to use federal troops to suppress the popular and virtually bloodless Dorr Rebellion of 1841-1842 against the ruling elite in Rhode Island. Ivan gives Tyler credit for restraint because he never had to actually send in troops. But Tyler's emphatic support for the existing state government was not seen as restraint at the time, being denounced as "a virtual declaration of war against the majority of the People of Rhode Island" by the rebels. Moreover, you can even argue that Tyler, by helping to prop up the Rhode Island oligarchy, was violating the provision of the Constitution guaranteeing every state "a republican form of government." In the short run, the rebellion was suppressed using martial law, and its leaders were given life sentences (some in solitary confinement) for treason against the state. Not until 1845 did massive public outcry force release of the rebels. Perhaps most ominous, Tyler's actions in this case are widely viewed as an important precedent for Lincoln's suppression of secession.

The removal of the Cherokee is indeed a very black mark against Van Buren's term. But even there, Van Buren's role is often overstated. The Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830, under Andrew Jackson, during whose term most of the removals took place. Indeed, the term "Trail of Tears" was first used to describe the removal of the Choctaw in 1831. The reason the Cherokee were late to be relocated is because of their appeal to the Supreme Court, which Jackson ignored before signing into law a removal "treaty" passed by Congress. So Van Buren's sin was not stopping a policy long in operation and already enacted into law by Congress. He played no role in initiating it. And Tyler found himself in virtually the same position with respect to the Seminole War, which finally ended the southwestern deportations during his term with the cessation of hostilities in 1843. Tyler admittedly does deserve praise for accepting peace terms that Van Buren had rejected, but he did so largely out of weariness over the U.S. government's most protracted and expensive Indian war.

When you put Van Buren's achievements into the opposite scale, his superiority over Tyler seems to me undeniable. I wont detail them all; you can find them in the attached article I published in the Independent Review in 1999. (I know you've read it before.) But as someone who is antiwar and a former Canadian, surely you must appreciate not just Van Buren's opposition to Texas annexation in order to avoid war with Mexico, but also his peaceful resolution of two possible wars with Britain over Canada, which cost Van Buren politically. The first involved the 1837 Caroline affair, arising out of the Mackenzie rebellion in Upper Canada. The second was the Aroostook "War" of 1838-39 over the border between Maine and New Brunswick. Ironically, the one really good part of Tyler's foreign policy was his following in Van Buren's footsteps and finally settling all these and other outstanding issues in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.

One can make plausible cases that Grover Clevelend (Higgs's favorite), Calvin Coolidge (Lawrence Reed's favorite), or Warren Harding (David Beito's favorite) might rank higher than Van Buren in the list of least bad presidents. But in my opinion, Tyler is not even in the running.

By the way, I reread most of Jeff's Independent Review article while writing this post. It's excellent. A large part of it is, as befitting a monetary economist, on the monetary controversies during Van Buren's one term. One of my favorite parts is this footnote:

Van Buren also discussed the causes of the panic, in probably the most economically sophisticated presidential address ever penned. His explanation combined a rudimentary version of the Austrian trade-cycle theory and a discerning presentation of the real-bills doctrine, along with an emphasis on the international factors that cliometricians have recently demonstrated to be decisive. On top of all that, the message made an objection to a national bank that remains unanswered still: "In Great Britain where it has been seen the same causes have been attended with the same effects, a national bank possessing powers far greater than are asked for by the warmest advocates of such an institution here has also proved unable to prevent an undue expansion of credit and the events that flow from it."

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COMMENTS (3 to date)
Andrew_FL writes:
complete national deregulation of the financial system under Van Buren

This strikes me as probably an exaggeration. As far as I am aware, complete laissez faire never really occurred in this area in the US. Perhaps he means federal regulation was completely eliminated.

But now I'd really like to read this address of Van Buren's, that he mentions in his Independent Review Article.

Andrew_FL writes:

Oh lookie here, I found the speech in question.

Jeff Hummel writes:

By "national deregulation," I did mean only "federal" regulation. Sorry for the confusion. Alas, the Independent Treasury did leave in place myriad state regulations of banking.

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