John Tyler, traitor? Well, yes, actually ...

John Kelly
Columnist February 24, 2013

Who knew that John Tyler had so many fans? I heard from several of them after my column last Monday about a new book from the Smithsonian on presidential trivia.

These Tyleristas did not take kindly to my assertion that Tyler was a traitor — or, as the Smithsonian puts it, that he was “the only president to commit a public act of treason against the U.S. government.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Here’s what appears on Page 180 of “The Smithsonian Book of Presidential History”:

“As president in the early 1840s, Tyler, who was a native Virginian, supported many policies his party did not — states rights and slavery, to name two. Sixteen years after leaving office, when Civil War seemed inevitable, Tyler chaired a peace conference between representatives from the North and South with the goal of keeping the Union intact. When the peace efforts he spearheaded failed, Tyler embraced the Confederacy and urged fellow Virginians to join him. He was eventually elected to the Confederate Congress, which was officially at war with the country he once served.”

Actually, Tyler died before he had a chance to take a seat in the Confederate Congress, but there’s no denying that by then he was not enamored with the United States, despite serving as its president after the death of William Henry Harrison.


An undated portrait-daguerreotype of John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States, 1841-1845. (Anonymous/Associated Press)

Was he a traitor? No, wrote a reader named Ellen. “A traitor is one who betrays the country of which he is currently a citizen and owes allegiance,” she wrote.

In her opinion, since Tyler considered himself a citizen of the Confederate States of America, he cannot be considered a traitor.

Reader Bolling Smith had a similar viewpoint. Was George Washington a traitor for wanting to take up arms against King George?

“I realize that Washington, and your newspaper, consider anything Confederate to be evil,” Bolling wrote, “but most southerners believed that their principle allegiance was to their state, and as such, southerners who fought for the Union were traitors. The fact that they lost the war does not refute that argument.”

To which I say: Yes it does! The South lost! They lost the war! The winners get to decide! If the British had defeated George Washington you can bet they’d be calling him a traitor today.

And besides, the South was in favor of slavery! Some may call it “political correctness” to harp on that point, but given what a monstrosity slavery was, it seems a point worth harping on.

Edward P. Crapol, an emeritus professor of history at the College of William and Mary, wrote the biography “John Tyler, the Accidental President.” Ed said that though Tyler died before taking his seat in the Confederate Congress, he had served in the provisional congress, where he helped negotiate the transfer of the capital from Montgomery, Ala., to Richmond and was active in procuring supplies that would allow the Confederacy to wage war.

“When he takes this action, he knows he’s a rebel,” Ed told me. “He knows what he’s done. They’re not playing bean bag, if you know what I mean. This is very serious stuff.”

And, in Ed’s opinion, certifiably treasonous stuff.

Ed said that sometimes when he gives talks on Tyler, neo-Confederates collar him to criticize his take on the controversial president. “You want to look at them and say, ‘Get over it. We’re all Americans.’ ”

‘Abbey’ road

While we’re on the subject of readers who are mad at me, I may as well explain myself to those who were upset with my “Downton Abbey” satire from two weeks ago. People seemed especially angry that I had treated Lady Edith so poorly. To recap, in my spoof, the Dowager Countess throws a yo-yo at Edith’s head and says “You’re ugly and we hate you.”

Several readers e-mailed to say that is not at all how the countess would talk.

Well, no, but I think it encapsulates the way “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes treats poor Edith. She’s always getting the short end of the stick. And the stick often turns out to have been poked in a pile of dog excrement before being handed to her. (Thank goodness she usually has gloves on.)

Season 3 has ended, but I fully expect that Season 4 will include a scene where Edith starts coughing at the dinner table, only to have an alien burst out of her chest and tear down the hallway.

“Oh dear,” the Dowager Countess will say. “What’s gotten into Edith?”

Tyler, too

Just to get back to John Tyler: Did you know two of his grandsons are still around? Tyler had 15 children, the last when he was 70. One of those sons had his last child at 75. That’s how two grandsons of a president born in 1790 are still alive. Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. lives in Tennessee. Harrison Ruffin Tyler lives in Charles City, Va., on the family plantation, Sherwood Forest, which is open for tours.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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