Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Family Tyler... Spanning American History

How many generations back can you trace your family tree? Two generations? Three? Four if you're lucky. How many years back does that take you? Maybe a hundred or so?, arguably the most famous genealogy website available today, defines a generation as "being about 25 years-from the birth of a parent to the birth of a child..." The article also reminds us that generation length is flexible, that it was generally shorter in the past, is lengthening in the present, but that it is different for each family and generation.

By now, you may be thinking, "Why does this matter?" I bring up this point about the length of generations to give a bit of context for the story I am about to tell, about one of our oldest and least-known presidents, and the strange story of how his family is the answer to one of the most fantastic potential Jeopardy questions of all time.
President John Tyler

The photograph above is John Tyler, the 10th president of the United States. Did you even know that one of our Presidents was named John Tyler? My guess is that a lot of people do not. But I'm not calling you stupid, I promise. John Tyler is just a very obscure president- he may be best known today for the famous jingle used during his pre-election campaign to help people to remember him: "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!" Tyler does not get credit for doing anything especially noticeable in American history, which is a little bit unfair. Here are a few fun facts for you:
  • John Tyler was the first vice president to be serving when the president (William Henry Harrison) died in office. Before this, there was no real precedent for what happened if a president did die while serving. The U.S. Constitution stated, rather vaguely, that if, for some reason, the president could no longer serve, then "same shall devolve on the Vice President." It was unclear whether the Founding Fathers wanted the Vice President to become President or to just take on his powers. John Tyler wanted none of this debate, and upon reaching the White House from his Virginia home had himself sworn in as president, superseding any argument. The lack of popularity and the fact that he had not been elected led many of his opponents to refer to him as "His Accidency." Tyler's decision to claim the presidency set a precedent that allowed later vice presidents, most notably Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, to claim office.
  • John Tyler started the effort by the United States to annex Texas and make it a state. Most people give President James K. Polk the credit for Texas, which isn't unfair, since he was president when Texas became a state. But the political platform to annex Texas had originally been Tyler's goal; he had put pro-Texas officials into office, had his cabinet members negotiate with Texas, and had gone on a nationwide tour in 1843 to try and drum up support. It was under Tyler that the first treaty to annex Texas was submitted to the Senate in February 1844. Part of Tyler's reason for doing this was that his political party, the Whigs, had thrown him out of the party, and so his only chance of reelection as an Independent candidate was to do something big and popular, like annex Texas. The slogan used during this reelection campaign was "Tyler and Texas." When it became clear to Tyler he was not going to win the election, he dropped out and supported James K. Polk, another pro-annexation man. When Polk won, it was a clear mandate from the people of the United States that they were for Texas. Three days before he left office, March 1, 1845, Tyler signed a House and Senate-approved bill into law officially offering annexation to Texas. On December 29, 1845, Texas became the 28th state, under President Polk.
  • John Tyler was the first president whom Congress attempted to impeach. A Congressional Committee investigated his actions and character, and were expected to recommend impeachment. This came in part because Tyler routinely vetoed bills Congress had passed, saying they violated the Constitution. Because Tyler was a President without a party, and had become president accidentally, he was not a very popular man in Congress. Attempts were made to impeach him, including a strong push by former President John Quincy Adams, although they all failed and Tyler finished his term in office.
  • John Tyler was also the first president whose wife died in office, and then became the first president to ever get married while President. His first wife, Letitia, suffered a stroke in 1839 that left her paralyzed, and she died in 1841 from a second stroke, little more than a year after her husband had become president. Tyler met his second wife, Julia, at a ball when she was 21, thirty years his junior. When his wife passed away he began to express his interest in her, but was rebuffed. Then, in an accident aboard the USS Princeton involving a huge cannon known as "Peacemaker", Julia's father was killed, the news of which caused her to faint. President Tyler caught her and carried her to safety, which swayed her opinion of him. They became engaged, and in less than four months they were married, the first president to get married while in the White House.
  • John Tyler fathered more children than any other president in American history. He had eight with Letitia, and another seven with Julia, a grand total of fifteen. The next most prolific President was William Henry Harrison, who had ten legitimate children and one by his slave. Thomas Jefferson had six legitimate children, but a whopping eight with his slave, Sally Hemmings. John Tyler's youngest daughter, Pearl, was born in 1860, only two years before Tyler's death, when he was seventy! Because he had remarried a much younger woman, he was able to have children very late in life.
The fact that he had children very late in life brings us back to the questions I asked at the beginning of this story. How many generations back can you trace your family? And how many years does that span? Because one of John Tyler's sons, Lyon, decided to follow in his father's footsteps in a very strange way. Lyon was born in 1853, when his father was 63. Like his father, he had two wives, including one who was much younger than himself. And like his father, he had children very late in life, when he was 71 and 75! His youngest sons, Lyon, Jr. and Harrison, were born in 1924 and 1928, and they are still alive. That may not be all that remarkable to you, until you consider that their grandfather was born in 1790! That is three generations that span 225 years of American history. If you factor in John Tyler's father, John Sr., you have four generations that cover 268 years AND the entirety of United States history, from the Colonial Period to Present! The average generation is 25 years; the average Tyler generation is 67 years! Another amazing fact is that John Tyler, Sr. was good friends with THOMAS JEFFERSON in his youth, and the two of them went together to see Patrick Henry give a speech which included the words, "If this be treason, make the most of it." This inspired John Tyler senior to write articles against the British. Which means that the Tyler family has been at the forefront of American history since before there was an America. (May, John Tyler, 10) 

Above I mentioned that the Tyler family is the answer to one of the greatest potential Jeopardy questions of all time. What is that question? Who is the oldest US president to still have living grandchildren. The answer is John Tyler. And it's really not even close. The next closest President to have a living grandchild is James A. Garfield, whose granddaughter Jane is 99- significantly older than either of Tyler's grandsons, even though Garfield was born forty years after Tyler and was a whopping ten presidents later than Tyler.

Harrison Tyler

In 2012 New York Magazine did an interview with Harrison Tyler, the younger of the President's grandchildren, who was 84 at the time and is 87 now. His response to being told he was alive? "Thank goodness." He said that when he was young, he was still in touch with much of the Tyler family, but that he has lost contact with most of them over the years. When asked how people respond when he tells them Tyler was his grandfather? "I don't know, I don't bring it up." He also says that he thinks his grandfather does not get the credit he deserves as President, and that he was a good man. I think we should take his word for it, we are not going to get a better source on someone born 225 years ago than his grandson.

  1. Amira, Dan. "President John Tyler’s Grandson, Harrison Tyler, on Still Being Alive," New York Magazine, January 27, 2012, accessed August 30, 2015, ://
  2. Article II, United States Constitution. Accessed August 30, 2015,
  3. "How long is a generation?", accessed August 30, 2015.
  4. May, Gary. John Tyler (2008, Times Books:New York).
  5. Pfeiffer, Eric. "Former President John Tyler’s (1790-1862) grandchildren still alive," Yahoo's The Sideshow, January 25, 2012, accessed August 30, 2015, ://
  6. Weinger, Mackenzie. "President Tyler's grandkids still alive," Politico, January 26, 2012, accessed August 30, 2015,
  7. Wikipedia Contributors, "James A. Garfield", Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, :// August 30, 2015)
  8. Wikipedia Contributors, "James K. Polk", Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, August 30, 2015)
  9. Wikipedia Contributors, "John Tyler", Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed August 30, 2015)
  10. Wikipedia Contributors, "Lyon Gardiner Tyler", Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia,:// (accessed August 30, 2015)

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