state governments told u.s. senators how to vote -- 3/7/14

Today's selection -- from John Tyler by Gary May. To a degree unimaginable today, America in the early 1800s was governed through its states, and the federal government in Washington D.C. was secondary. In 1809, more than twenty years after the adoption of the Constitution, future president John Tyler railed against the thought of "a supreme executive" or a "supreme legislature" and thought congress should have no power to veto state laws. And U.S. Senators were expected to vote as instructed by state governments, since in fact they were elected by that state governments.

An engraving of Tyler in his mid-thirties
(c. 1826) as Governor of Virginia.

"Like his father before him, John Tyler found his calling in public service. There was no more noble and necessary profession. '[G]ood and able Men had better govern than be gover'd,' the Judge believed, 'since 'tis possible, indeed highly probable, that if the able and good withdraw themselves from Society, the venal and ignorant will succeed.' Tyler chose the law because, he said, it was 'the high road to fame.' His father was his first mentor, followed by his cousin Samuel Tyler; in 1809, when his father became governor, John went to work with a William and Mary alumnus, Edmund Randolph, the former U.S. attorney general. Tyler loved the law but not the way Randolph, a Federalist, interpreted it. 'He proposed a supreme national government,' a sickened Tyler recalled, 'with a supreme executive, a supreme legislature, and a supreme judiciary, and a power in Congress to veto state laws.' Nothing could have been farther from the republican ideal. ...

"Given Tyler's profession and social standing in Charles City County, it is not surprising that he won election to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1811, when he was just twenty-one. Instead of quietly learning from his more experienced colleagues and refraining from bold action, Tyler, barely a month after assuming office in December 1811, took on Virginia's two U.S. senators.

A Quarrel between a Federalist and a Republican in the House of Representatives.

"In the previous session, the statehouse had instructed Senators William Branch Giles and Richard Brent to oppose the rechartering of the Bank of the United States, which many states' rights republicans, Tyler among them, considered unconstitutional. When they ignored the 'sacred' custom of legislative instruction and voted in favor of the bank, Tyler was furious. Without seeking the advice of more senior delegates, he introduced three resolutions censuring Giles and Brent, despite each man's long record of public service. Their 'conduct,' Tyler said, was 'incompatible with the principles of a Republican government.' In his view, Giles and Brent 'did cease to be the true and legitimate representatives of this State.' No records exist to indicate how Tyler's colleagues reacted, but they must have been upset because the resolutions were sent to a committee, which softened their inflammatory language. Still, the final draft embodied Tyler's opinion that U.S. senators must follow the legislature's instructions, and the Virginia House approved it overwhelmingly. Tyler's victory did not entirely satisfy him, however. Almost a year later, in December 1812, Tyler voted to table the reading of a message from Senator Giles, an attempt to silence his opponent."


Gary May


John Tyler (The American Presidents Series: The 10th President, 1841-1845)


Times Books, Henry Holt and Company


Copyright 2008 by Gary May


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