Educated at the College of William and Mary, he studied law under his father, John Tyler (1747–1813), governor of Virginia from 1808 to 1811, and was admitted (1809) to the bar. A state legislator (1811–16, 1823–25) and U.S. Representative (1817–21), Tyler was an unswerving states' rights Democrat. He joined the condemnation of Andrew Jackson's actions in Florida and voted against the Missouri Compromise.
Governor of Virginia (1825–27) and a U.S. Senator (1827–36), Tyler reluctantly supported Jackson as the least objectionable of the presidential candidates in 1828 and 1832. Although he did not approve South Carolina's nullification act, he violently opposed Jackson's measures against it (see force bill). The President's fiscal policies further alienated him, so that he was eventually drawn to the new Whig party, joining its states' rights Southern wing, which differed with many of the nationalistic policies associated with the Clay leadership. He resigned from the Senate rather than abide by the instructions of the Virginia legislature to vote for the motion to expunge Henry Clay's censure of Jackson from the records.