2. John Tyler
John Tyler may not even be in any ‘top 20 of most famous Presidents’ lists, but he nevertheless holds a unique place in the American history books. The tenth President of the United States was the first man to hold the office without having been elected to it. What’s more, he served longer than any other President not elected to the office and his ascension to the top job has been copied by almost every other man put in the same position ever since.
That Tyler made it to the top of American politics is, in itself, not that surprising. After all, he was born, in March of 1790, into a wealthy and privileged family. His father roomed with Thomas Jefferson at college and, like him, Tyler studied law. Upon graduating, he soon set about realising his own political ambitions. He was elected to represent Charles City County, Virginia, in the House of Delegates, a post he held for five successive one-year terms.
Following the War of 1812 – which the staunchly anti-British Tyler supported whole-heartedly – Tyler returned home to practice law before returning to state politics. By 1827, he had risen to become a Senator and then, by 1836, he was respected enough to be considered running for Vice President as a Whig. He would eventually win the office in 1841, stressing his commitment to defending and promoting the rights of the States. Notably, Tyler assumed that his new job would give him little to do. Within days of being sworn into office, he returned home, expecting to be left largely in peace.
Just over a month after he took the job, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia. Tyler stepped into the role, putting the rules of the Constitution into practice for the first time. Not everyone was impressed. Indeed, some of Tyler’s political opponents continued to address him as ‘Vice President’ or even ‘Acting President’. Caught between the Whigs and the Democrat factions, he struggled to achieve much at all domestically, though his foreign policy accomplishments are looked upon favorably by historians.
When his term of office came to an end in 1845, Tyler refused to run again. Instead he retired to a plantation in Virginia. Famously, his neighbors appointed him to a small, largely insignificant local political office in order to mock his fall from the top. But Tyler took the role every bit as serious as he took the top job despite his old age. He died in January of 1862, though, thanks to his allegiance to the Confederacy, his passing was not officially recognized in Washington.