Earlier this fall, attorney and author Stan Haynes offered to send me a copy of his newest book, And Tyler No More, which is set in the Jacksonian/antebellum period. Although there is some fiction set in this period (see my review of A Stranger Here Below), there isn’t a lot. With that in mind, and with my research on the 1844 presidential campaign still fresh, I agreed to read the book and write a short review about it here. (Note: There are spoilers in my review.)
And Tyler No More is part political intrigue, part murder mystery, and part history. It uses a fictitious assassination plot against President John Tyler to explicate the sectional division that consumed the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. The main character is U.S. representative Montgomery Tolliver, a former aide to Whig statesman Henry Clay. Tolliver is summoned to Clay’s bedside in June 1852, where the Kentuckian asks him about the assassination plot. The narrative then jumps back to 1841 and follows Tolliver and two other men—Ben Geddis and Sam Shipley—as they develop a friendship and eventually begin to plan Tyler’s death because of his pro-slavery, expansionist agenda. The attempted assassination, which was to take place on the U.S.S. Princeton in February 1844, ultimately fails. The fatal shot was supposed to be fired during a demonstration of the Peacemaker cannon, but the president did not appear on deck as planned. Geddis dies under questionable circumstances a few days later, leading Tolliver to suspect that he was murdered by someone who discovered their plot.
In March 1851, Tolliver meets with Shipley, who admits that he had warned sailors on the Princeton that there was an assassin aboard the ship. This message prevented Tyler from being on deck when the Peacemaker cannon exploded, killing and injuring several people. Shipley also confesses that after Geddis discovered his betrayal, the two friends fought. During the tussle, Geddis fell and hit his head, meaning that his death was accidental, not a murder. Shipley, however, was consumed with guilt. After confessing his actions to Tolliver, he takes his life. Tolliver relays all of this information to Clay shortly before the statesman dies. The novel ends with Clay’s funeral and Abraham Lincoln’s eulogy of him. Tolliver resigns his congressional post but determines that he will one day return to Washington—just not as a Whig. (The implication is that he becomes a Republican.)
Haynes does a good job of explaining the political history of the era, especially the contemporary hatred of Tyler, who was extremely unpopular with politicans and voters alike. I applaud his choice of centering the assassination plot on the infamous Princeton incident, which changed (or maybe just accelerated) the nation’s trajectory on the issue of expansion and slavery. I was more intrigued when Princeton captain Robert F. Stockton appeared to be behind Geddis’ murder than with the choice to make his death accidental, but that may be the influence of teaching a conspiracy theories course concurrently with reading the book. I wish the novel had been longer, not for the history, but for the character development. For example, I would like to have seen more use of Tyler’s sons, who were interesting in their own right. Then again, I like sprawling, interwoven fiction, so this desire for a longer book may just be a personal preference.
Ultimately, And Tyler No More is a good, quick read that will keep you engaged and teach you some history about a president and a period few people remember.