Tyler shared with Harrison his birthplace in Charles City County, Virginia. Both of their fathers had served as governors of that state. Born on 29 March 1790, Tyler, at fifty-one, was the youngest man up to that point to become president, and Harrison, the oldest. A graduate of William and Mary College and a lawyer, he had served in the Virginia legislature, the governorship, the House of Representatives, and the United States Senate. Never a strong party man, he had reluctantly supported Andrew Jackson for the presidency in 1828 and 1832 but had broken with him in 1833, opposing the removal of the deposits from the Bank of the United States and casting the lone vote in the Senate against the Force Act. In 1836 he resigned his seat in the Senate rather than obey the instruction of the Virginia legislature to vote for expunging the resolution of censure that the Senate had imposed earlier on Jackson.
A strict constructionist, an ardent champion of states' rights, and a defender of the South's "domestic institutions," Tyler had a rigid, even anachronistic, political conscience. He had long opposed the Bank of the United States and a protective tariff, yet he admired Henry Clay. He was sufficiently prominent as a states' rights opponent of Van Buren to be a vice presidential candidate in 1836 on the ticket headed by Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee. After others reportedly had declined the honor, he was the unanimous choice of the Whig national convention for the vice presidential nomination in 1839. A southern man was needed to balance the ticket; and Tyler, with his special appeal to the states' rights element in southern Whiggery, was an appropriate choice. But his unyielding constitutional scruples and his deficiencies as a political leader were to create embarrassments for his party and severe damage to his reputation as president.
Tyler's first official act had lasting constitutional significance. It was unclear whether, upon the death of a president, the vice president would actually become president or be merely vice president acting as president. Tyler promptly decided that he was the president. He subscribed to the presidential oath of office, issued a brief inaugural address, and moved into the White House. Some critics, then and afterward, challenged his view, but it was soon endorsed by Congress and has since prevailed. Decisive though he was on this crucial issue, Tyler generally held to a limited concept of presidential leadership. More specifically, he believed that responsibility for initiating legislation should rest upon Congress and that the president should confine himself to providing Congress with information and, in extreme instances,