The grandson of the 10th president of the United States provided a personal link to the early history of America that, often, can only be read about in textbooks and century-old biographies.
The 89-year-old Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. is the grandson of President John Tyler. Tyler served as president from 1841-1845. Both President Tyler and his son, Lyon Gardiner Sr., were widowers who remarried and fathered children late in life. As a result, three generations of the Tyler family now span 223 years -- and counting.
President Tyler, born in 1790, fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler in 1853, at the age of 63. Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. was born in 1924, when his father was 71 years old. His younger brother, Ruffin Tyler, was born four years later. Both sons are still alive today.
Lyon Tyler Jr. and his daughter, Susan, met with members of the DAR and local residents in the community room at McIver's Grant Public Library at the regular October meeting of the local DAR chapter. Tyler gave a presentation on the life and presidency of his grandfather -- and the unique family history that has landed the family in both the history books and in Ripley's Believe it or Not.
In addition to Tyler's presentation, Susan Tyler offered her own memories of growing up in the Tyler family, including beloved family stories and anecdotes of her father's unique experiences.
Tyler provided a detailed history on his grandfather's political career and personal life. Also descendants of Pocahontas, names and events brought up in Tyler family anecdotes include the famous Indian girl, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Andrew Jackson, John F. Kennedy Jr., FDR, the American Revolution, the annexation of Texas and the Civil War.
Tyler began his presentation with a little information on his great-grandfather, the father of the president.
"John Tyler's father, also named John, was Thomas Jefferson's roommate at the College of William and Mary," said Tyler. "Jefferson and John Tyler Sr. shared the same political views, played their fiddles together in college and remained lifelong friends. John Tyler Sr. was speaker of the House of Burgesses and he and Patrick Henry organized a militia company just prior to the American Revolution. (Tyler) Sr. served in the Virginia legislature, where he made the motion that eventually led to the United States Constitutional Convention."
The president's father also served as judge of the Admiralty Court, the General Court, the Supreme Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court.
When Tyler's presentation turned to President John Tyler, the list was just as impressive.
"John Tyler entered the College of William and Mary at age 13 and graduated soon after his 17th birthday," said Tyler. "He gave the valedictory address, remarkably, about the importance of women's rights -- especially in the field of education. ... Before I attempt to discuss Tyler's presidency, let me say a few words about his previous career and some things that can show us the kind of man he was."
Tyler said, above all, his grandfather was an honest man who cared for his family.
"It was always his children who were his primary concern," said Tyler. "In his letters to his many sons and daughters, the need for honesty is a regular refrain. For example, this letter to his son, John Jr., back in 1832: 'Truth should always be uttered no matter what the consequences. Nothing so degrades a man as equivocation and deceit. When I am in company with a double-dealing man -- one who has one language on his tongue and another in his heart -- I am involuntarily made to avoid him as I would a poisonous reptile.'"
Tyler said President Tyler was known as "Honest John" and commended for this trait in John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage," a Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 1957.
"The Whig campaign of 1840 was the first modern campaign with all the trimmings: buttons and banners, songs and slogans," said Tyler.
President Tyler and his running mate, President William Henry Harrison, grew up just 10 miles apart in the same Virginia county. The two were related through Tyler's mother. Harrison was former governor of the Indiana Territory and victor over the Indians in the Battle of Tippecanoe and the British in Canada in the War of 1812. The Harrison/Tyler campaign slogan was "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!"
Susan Tyler reported that in his college days at William and Mary, her father partnered with a distant cousin and descendant of Harrison to run as president and vice president of their class. The duo ran under the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Two."
Susan Tyler shared a much-loved family story about her father's first experience with public speaking during that college campaign.
"He was standing in front of the student body and he couldn't find his speech," said Susan Tyler. "He was terrified. He finally said, 'To hell with this!' and ran off the stage."
In spite of his faux pas, Susan Tyler said her father's 'vice-presidential' campaign went well.
Lyon Tyler Jr. said his grandfather's presidential campaign was also a success, appealing to residents on both sides of issues facing the nation at that time.
"The Whig slogan 'Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too' really meant 'We'll give you Harrison, a war hero,'" said Tyler. "'He's for a strong national government, roads and canals, a national bank and a high tariff, but if you don't like that; we'll give you Tyler. He's for states' rights and against all that other stuff.' The Whigs won easily and Harrison became president. But Harrison had already given away the store. He had agreed to be a one-term president and to have just one vote in the Cabinet, which was to be hand-picked by Henry Clay."
Harrison died from pneumonia just one month after the election, making Tyler the first vice president to rise to the position of president.
"Nobody, including John Tyler, expected that he'd become president," said Tyler. "The Whigs in Congress were shocked. They refused to recognize Tyler as the real president since this was the first time a president had died in office. But Tyler believed that according to the Constitution, he was the president and he was determined to be president. He would make the decisions. He would not promise to let Henry Clay run the show. As a matter of fact, when Henry Clay showed up to tell the Accidental President whom to appoint and how to conduct his office, Tyler thundered, 'You go, Mr. Clay, to your end of the Avenue, where stands the Capitol and there, do your duty as you see fit. And, so help me God, I will do mine at this end of the Avenue as I see fit.' From then on, Clay had the votes, but Tyler had the vetoes."
Tyler's first act as president was to proclaim a national day of fasting and prayer to mourn the death of President Harrison.
These strong Christian values were not only a characteristic of politicians in the early days of America, but a trait Susan Tyler said is strong in the Tyler family, as well.
"(We have a) godly heritage," said Susan Tyler, turning to her father. "I love to brag on your mom, that she was quite a godly woman. (She) accomplished as much in the spiritual world as (our ancestors) accomplished in this one."
Susan Tyler recounted several events, where her father's 'good luck' was credited to his mother's prayers, including several adventures in World War II and a particularly serious car accident here in the United States.
Lyons Tyler Jr. credited his grandfather for following his beliefs and taking the hard road in his presidency.
"If Tyler had gone along with Clay and the Whig majority in Congress, he could have had an easy road and many would have deemed his presidency successful," said Tyler. "But he refused to take the easy road. He vetoed the bill to re-charter the Bank of the United States and the Whigs read him out of the party. The veto caused his Cabinet to resign, except for Daniel Webster, his secretary of state. Instead, Tyler proposed a banking system with a board in Washington and branches in various parts of the country, a system almost identical to the Federal Reserve System which was subsequently adopted in 1913."
Lyons Tyler Jr. said his grandfather was unable to do much domestically in his term as president, but his administration has been recognized for his accomplishments in foreign affairs.
Successes in Tyler's presidency noted in his grandson's presentation included settling the boundary line between the United States and Canada over halfway across the continent; invoking the Monroe Doctrine to prevent the British and French from taking over the Hawaiian Islands; and sending the first American mission to China, which resulted in an 1814 treaty, profitable trade and granting American citizens in China rights. Tyler also applied the novel use of a joint resolution by both houses of Congress to push through the annexation of Texas at the very end of his administration.
"Tyler's first major biographer called him a champion of the Old South," said Tyler. "But I believe that is incorrect. Tyler had troubling doubts about slavery and never saw it as a positive good, though he was a slave owner."
Tyler introduced a bill to end slave trade in the District of Columbia and served as president of the Virginia Colonization Society, aimed to resettle freed slaves in Liberia. After his presidency, he pleaded with the Virginia legislature to call a meeting of the border states when the Deep South states seceded. He wished to form a bridge between the two sections of the country. But it was too late. On the same date, the 'Peace Convention' was held in the Willard Hotel in Washington, representatives of the seven Deep South states met in Montgomery, Ala. to establish the Confederate States of America.
When Virginia seceded, Tyler saw no other course than to continue to serve his state. He was elected to the Confederate Congress, but died suddenly before he could take his seat.
Lyon Tyler Jr.'s unique role as the grandson of a president who led the country over 160 years ago comes, first, from President Tyler's love of children. A widower, Tyler remarried and fathered children late in his life.
Tyler's first wife, the beautiful Letitia Christian, was an invalid when Tyler became president. She died during his second year in office. His daughter-in-law, Priscilla Cooper Tyler, served as White House hostess with the help of former First Lady Dolley Madison.
The president's second wife was Julia Gardiner, a 24-year-old debutante who married the president when he was 54. Known as the Rose of Long Island, she returned with Tyler to Virginia after his presidency, adding seven more children to the eight the ex-president had with his first wife. Julia Gardiner Tyler was Lyon Tyler Jr.'s grandmother.
"The ex-president loved children," said Tyler. "He never tired of them, took them hunting, fishing, riding and boating. On summer evenings he would play the fiddle and sing with (them)."
Being the grandson of a president provided opportunities for several unique experiences, experiences young boys who had endured too many conversations about presidents might find hard to appreciate.
"Dad was able to meet FDR," said Susan Tyler. "He was about 13 or 14 and his little brother was about 9 or 10. While the boys were waiting with their mother in the chamber, (my uncle said), 'I don't want to meet any old president. I want to go to the zoo!'"
After his presentation, Lyons Tyler Jr. was presented a joint proclamation and Key to the City by Dyer County Mayor Richard Hill and Dyersburg Mayor John Holden. The proclamation declared Monday, Oct. 28 as Lyons Tyler Jr. Day in Dyer County.
"We want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts," said Susan Tyler at the conclusion of the event. "We have had a wonderful afternoon."