He studied law with his father, John Tyler (1747 - 1813), who became governor of Virginia (1808 - 1811), and followed his father as governor (1825 - 1827) after a stint in the House of Representatives. During his time as U.S. Senator, Tyler, who had begun as a strict state-rights Democrat, grew increasingly alienated from the Jacksonian Democrats, especially by Jackson's aggressive handling of the South Carolina nullification issue.
Drawn into the newly-organized Whig party, Tyler was elected Vice President in 1840 as running mate to William Henry Harrison, on the slogan 'Tippecanoe&mdash and Tyler too!' and assumed the presidency upon Harrison's death a month into his term.
His presidency was rarely taken seriously in his time; he was usually referred to as the "Acting President" or "His Ascendency" by opponents. Further, Harrison was expected to adhere closely to Whig Party policies and work closely with Whig leaders, particularly Henry Clay. Tyler shocked Congressional Whigs by vetoing virtually the entire Whig agenda, twice vetoing Clay's legislation for a national banking act following the Panic of 1837 and leaving the government deadlocked. Tyler was officially expelled from the Whig Party in 1841, a few months after taking office, and the entire cabinet he had inherited from Harrison resigned in September. The one exception was Daniel Webster, Secretary of State, who remained to finalize the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842, demonstrating his independence of Clay.
For two years Tyler struggled with the Whigs, but when he took John C. Calhoun as Secretary of State, to 'reform' the Democrats, the gravitational swing of the Whigs to identity with 'the North' and the Democrats as the party of 'the South,' led the way to the sectional party politics of the next decade.
Tyler's last act in office was perhaps the most significant: he signed the bill annexing Texas, which had formerly been part of Mexico, thus extending the territory of slave-holding states and unbalancing the Missouri Compromise. The consequences of this act, which triggered war with Mexico, Tyler left to his successor, James K. Polk.
Tyler retired to a plantation named "Walnut Grove" he had bought in Virginia, renaming it "Sherwood Forest" to signify that he had been "outlawed" by the Whig party, and withdrew from electoral politics, though his advice continued to be sought by states-rights Democrats.
In February 1861, Tyler re-entered public life to sponsor and chair the Washington peace convention. The Washington peace convention sought a compromise to avoid civil war, while the Confederate Consitution was being drawn up at the Montgomery Convention. When the Senate rejected his plan, Tyler urged Virginia's immediate secession. Having served in the provisional Confederate Congress in 1861, he was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives but died before he could take office.