JOHN TYLER (March 29, 1790 – January 18, 1862)
During this week in history, John Tyler, 10th President of the United States, died on January 18, 1862. In his day, his opponents dubbed him “His Accidency” or “The Accidental President” because he was the first president to sit in the office without having been elected to the position. President William Harrison died thirty days after his inauguration. On March 4, 1841, Harrison had given a near-two-hour inaugural speech in the freezing rain. What had been a cold developed into pneumonia, killing the president and launching Tyler, Harrison’s Vice President, into the White House on April 4, 1841.
Tyler was a prominent Virginian and statesman. Besides the presidency (1841-1845) and his legal profession, he served two terms as governor, served in both Houses of the U. S. Congress, was a state senator, and was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He was Chancellor of his alma mater, the College of William and Mary. Although he opposed secession during the turbulent prelude to the Civil War, once Virginia seceded, he supported her decision, and was elected to the Confederate Congress.
As active as he was in state and national politics, Tyler had enemies in both the Democrat Party and his own party, the Whigs. In placing Tyler on the 1840 presidential ticket, the Whigs had used him as a political pawn to garner Southern votes, but most of them disagreed with his stand on the issues. Tyler supported states’ rights, which alienated the Whigs, and believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution, which alienated the Democrats. He became a man without a party. Without allegiance to either side, he took the seat of the President under his own wing and pushed his own agenda.
Tyler accomplished much during his tenure in the White House. He reorganized the Navy, and in so doing, established the nucleus of the present Naval Observatory, which subsequently included the center of the Weather Bureau. He promoted a national telegraph system. He ended the Seminole Indian wars, and ended Dorr’s Rebellion in Rhode Island. He negotiated an open-port treaty with China, and oversaw the Webster-Ashburton Treaty which set the boundary between Maine and Canada. On his last day in office, he annexed Texas to the United States.
The Tyler family is prolific, and only a few generations span the American centuries. John Tyler was born in 1790, and had fifteen children by two wives. His first wife, Letitia Christian, bore eight children between 1815 and 1830. She died in the White House in 1842, and two years later, Tyler married Julia Gardiner, who bore him seven children between 1846 and 1860. Tyler holds the record of the president with the most children. He was also the first president to wed while in office.
During his presidency, John Tyler bought a James River plantation which became the Tyler family home. It was called Walnut Grove. It is located in Charles City County, Virginia, about 18 miles west of Williamsburg. Tyler soon renamed it when political opponents publicly likened him to Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. Tyler, ever displaying a broad sense of humor, turned the insult on its ear by chortling over the joke and adopting the name for his new home. Sherwood Forest has remained in the Tyler family since that time, sometimes open to the public as a museum, sometimes not. It is still a residence; the Tylers struggle with issues of trying to live in a house regularly crowded with strangers.
Currently living in the house is John Tyler’s grandson (yes, grandson) Harrison Ruffin Tyler, youngest son of Lyon Gardiner Tyler, John’s thirteenth child, who was born in 1853. Lyon duplicated his father’s marital pattern, marrying twice and having (not quite so many) children into the early 20th Century. Harrison was born in 1928 and is still hale and hearty in his early eighties. He and his family manage the plantation, raising horses and running a tree farm, among other things. In 1996, he purchased an abutting parcel to manage as a tree farm, but also was interested in the remnants of a Civil War fort on the parcel. This was Fort Pocahontas, an earthen fort built at Wilson’s Wharf on the James River by the United States Colored Troops in 1864.
Tyler has taken an active interest in the restoration of Fort Pocahontas, and has helped to finance the reconstruction of officers’ barracks and appropriate clearing of trees and brush from the site, although it remains somewhat wooded, as the original fort site was never entirely cleared.
About ten years ago, when my husband and I were living in Virginia, we were invited to participate in a Civil War reenactment at Fort Pocahontas. The event was intended to raise public awareness of the fort’s existence, and it gave the Tylers an opportunity to meet reenactors who would have a direct interest in the site. The Tylers’ hospitality lived up to the standards for which the South is famous, and we had a rare opportunity to meet Harrison Tyler and his wife Frances (as well as her devoted little dog Toodles whom she had rescued off the streets of Chicago). The Tylers were fascinated with the reenactors, and the reenactors were equally fascinated with the Tylers. How often do you get to meet people of presidential stock?
To think that one can speak today, in the 21st Century, with a man who is only two generations from a man born in the 18th Century. What is that they say about degrees of separation?
The Civil War event continues to be held annually in May at Fort Pocahontas. If you are in the area, it’s a good take. The Tylers have probably done more work on the fort since we were there. And if the house is open for public tours, be sure to check that out, too. Aside from the Tyler connection, it has a unique architectural history of its own.
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