Contrary to accepted opinion, John Tyler was a strong president. He established the precedent that the vice president, on succeeding to the presidential office, should be president. He had firm ideas about public policy, and he was disposed to use the full authority of his office to gain his ends. Only Jackson exceeded him in the use of the veto. His boldness in seeking the annexation of Texas, whatever the motives or merits of his actions, was extraordinary. He was insistent on maintaining the independence of the executive branch against Whig efforts to make it subservient to Congress. Operating under the peculiar disadvantages of having gained the office by accident and of becoming a president without a party, he conducted his administration with considerable dignity and effectiveness.
His break with the Whigs was unfortunate both for him and for the party. On the two key issues involved—the bank and distribution—his course was not irrational. As a politician, Tyler believed in moderate policies. In his view, which was probably correct, the reestablishment of a national bank was too controversial a measure to be undertaken: its enactment would not end the controversy, for the Democrats remained solidly opposed, and when they returned to office, they might well destroy the bank. As for distribution, there was surely merit in his contention that the government should not be deprived of a source of revenue when it had large deficits. Significantly, neither the bank nor distribution was to be revived as a prominent issue in the future.
Tyler's deficiencies were as a political leader. He lacked Jackson's ability to engender popular support. His bank vetoes, unlike Jackson's, were devoid of demagogic appeal; he did not have Old Hickory's charisma. He failed utterly in his feeble efforts to supplant Clay as leader of the Whig party, and his attempt to form a new party was futile and even pathetic. Paradoxically, it was during his eccentric presidency that the second American party system achieved its greatest vigor. Instead of disintegrating under Tyler's potentially disruptive influence, the two major parties closed their respective ranks, sharpened their differences, and mobilized under their banners in 1844 as had never been done before and was not to be duplicated in the antebellum period.
Tyler departed from Washington as Polk was being inaugurated, with the conviction that he had served the best interests of the nation. He was a genial man, very much at ease in his social relationships, given to writing romantic poetry and performing on the violin. His first wife had died in September 1842, having borne him eight children. In June 1844, after a year of ardent courtship, Tyler married the vivacious Julia Gardiner, who was thirty years his junior. The devoted couple retired to Tyler's Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest, and in time there were seven more Tyler children. Although he was treated like a pariah, the former president retained his keen interest in political affairs and was pleased to be received back into the ranks of the Virginia Democratic party in 1852. With the approach of the Civil War, he became an advocate of secession, and in June 1861 he was proud to be chosen a member of the provisional Congress of the Confederacy. In November he was the victor in a four-way contest for a seat in the Confederate House of Representatives. He died in Richmond on 18 January 1862. He was, in the end, more faithful to his lifelong principles and to his native state than to the Union over which he had presided.