The Author’s Corner with Christopher Leahy

President without a partyChristopher Leahy is Professor of History at Keuka College. This interview is based on his new book, President Without a Party: The Life of John Tyler (LSU Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write President Without a Party?

CL: This book is a dramatic revision and expansion of my doctoral dissertation. To start, I wanted to focus my attention on a president most people knew nothing about, thinking that might help my publishing prospects. There had been no full-scale biography devoted solely to John Tyler since 1939, so I thought a fresh look at his life and career was warranted. As a political historian, I had always been interested in the dynamics of the two-party system, and by how that system both energized and constrained our presidents. That led me to the larger thematic question of what it meant to be a president who had been excommunicated by his party. I wanted to know how President Tyler’s banishment from the Whig ranks affected him personally, how it impacted his agenda, how exactly it affected his chances to win election in his own right, and what all of this had to say about the importance of political parties to presidential politics in the mid-nineteenth century.

I also became fascinated by how a former president of the United States, one whose father (whom he idolized) had played a small role in creating the Union out of the American Revolution, could have turned against the country he once led and formally ally himself with the government of the Confederacy.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of President Without a Party?

CL: John Tyler was portrayed by his contemporaries and by many historians as an ideologue whose rigid devotion to states’ rights and strict construction of the Constitution forestalled compromise and made him a failed president. While the view of him as an ideologue contains merit for his pre-presidential career, I argue that he largely favored a middle-of-the road, bipartisan approach to the nation’s problems once he became president, and that it was his status as a president without a party and rejection by both the Whigs and opposition Democrats that doomed his presidency.

JF: Why do we need to read President Without a Party?

CL: I don’t think we can fully understand the long process that led to secession and civil war without understanding John Tyler. For one thing, his career-long defense of the South and slavery provides a case-study of why the planter class turned against the Union and led the South to secede in 1860-61. Moreover, his successful pursuit of the annexation of Texas as president re-ignited the sectional controversy over slavery’s expansion into the nation’s territories and served as a long fuse for the start of war in April 1861.

There is also an aspect to Tyler’s experience that speaks more broadly to the presidency itself. All of the nation’s chief executives have maintained that the press has harassed them and that they suffer unfair attacks at the hands of their opponents. John Tyler, however, likely wins the prize for partisan abuse—and his opponents could be found in both parties. My book demonstrates the lengths to which the Whigs and Democrats went to undermine his presidency.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CL: I became interested in American history, and specifically American presidents, as a child. I went to college, however, intent on becoming an attorney. When I was an undergraduate, I read the first volume of William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion. The book sparked my interest in antebellum politics, and it made me think that I’d like to research and write and become an historian. I was fortunate to take courses in college with professors who were riveting lecturers as well as demanding instructors. In speaking with them over the course of my college years, I got to understand the life of an academic historian and decided that I wanted to pursue that career.

JF: What is your next project?

CL: My wife, Sharon Williams Leahy, and I are collaborating on a biography of First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler. Sharon has published an academic journal article in New York History that overturns a key piece of the historiography on Julia Tyler and we have published book chapters for two anthologies that re-orient the historiography on her. So, we are off to a great start on our work!

JF: Thanks, Christopher!