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Making history the old-fashioned way

 


John Tyler was our 10th president, the first one not born an English subject, and the namesake of Tyler, Texas, about 100 miles southeast of Dallas.

I suspect most of Tyler’s 100,000 residents are unaware of exactly who John Tyler was. This isn’t personal; I also imagine that most residents of Pierce County don’t know it was named for our 14th president, Franklin Pierce.

I have no way of knowing, of course. I just think it was a long time ago, and Tyler and Pierce are among our more obscure (and lowest-rated) presidents. Without cheating, how much do you know about either of these two men?

I get to cheat. I’m a little geeky when it comes to U.S. history, but I had to review Mr. Pierce’s biography a bit. It’s pretty sad. He’s considered obscure for good reasons.

On the other hand, I’ve always been a little intrigued by John Tyler. He was the 50-year-old running mate of William Henry Harrison, the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe 30 years prior and the oldest man ever elected president (at 68, he’d hold the record until Ronald Reagan was sworn in 140 years later).

Harrison was also the first president to die in office, succumbing to an infectious disease (likely typhoid, from raw sewage that infiltrated the water supply, and not because he refused to wear a coat at his inauguration the month before, as folklore tells it) after only four weeks in office.

This created what today we’d refer to as a constitutional crisis, as the framers were a little vague as to what would happen in this sort of situation.

There was a lot of speculation that Tyler should remain vice-president and just take over the duties of the presidency, which Tyler resolved by moving into the residence and taking the oath of office.

This set a precedent for the next seven presidential deaths, until it was codified by the 25th Amendment in 1967. That should be significant enough to burnish Tyler’s reputation, I would think, although he continued to be referred to as “His Accidency” derisively by his political enemies, and he was rejected by his ostensible political party (the Whigs) while in office, severely limiting his domestic agenda.

Oh, and he was a traitor. I should have mentioned that.

It’s complicated. Tyler was a proponent of states’ rights, and pro-slavery, but he wasn’t a Southern ideologue. He was dismissive of Lincoln, though, and after the Civil War began he joined the Confederacy and was even elected to their House of Representatives (he died before taking office).

Jefferson Davis gave him a state funeral, and he’s the only president to have been buried under a foreign (i.e., Confederate) flag.

Giving aid and comfort to the enemy is pretty much the definition of treason, and Tyler was the only president (at least as of this writing) to meet that threshold, although he was hardly the only traitor by that standard.

Maybe ex-presidents are supposed to know better.

Again, it was a long time ago. This is only a curiosity to me, not a passion, and not the reason I’ve got Tyler on my mind.

It’s because John Tyler became a widower while president, and remarried a younger woman a couple of years later. He would eventually father 15 children, including Lyon Gardiner Tyler when he was 63 years old, in 1853.

Lyon would have an interesting life, much of it spent trying to resurrect his father’s reputation and sully Lincoln’s, and after retirement, in his 70s, he remarried a much younger woman and had two sons of his own.

Maybe this story is starting to sound familiar. It’s been reported on for the past few years. John Tyler, born in 1790, a year after George Washington took office, has two grandchildren alive here in 2019.

This staggers me. It’s a family tree of biblical proportions, a stretch of 230 years in which three generations of Tylers lived when there easily might have been seven. Tyler’s descendants marked the bicentennial of their grandfather’s birth when they were in their 60s.

I could make the case that John Tyler was America’s grandpa, if you’re willing to snip out the warm and fuzzy parts. His grandchildren are a direct link to our country’s beginnings, even being born 60 years after his death.

“Staggers” is not a strong enough verb.

And, of course, this week’s history lesson was brought to you by the historic city of San Antonio, Texas, a few hours away from Tyler, where I’ve spent the past week. And by my own descendant, who has staggered me on a daily basis for a while now.

I have many reasons to stay alive, including not wanting to die, but the primary one these days is so my grandson will remember me. And he will; after nearly six years, I think I’ve got a permanent place in his memory now, although every year will help.

And time will always tell. Fairly recently, historians using complex criteria assessed our nation’s 40-odd presidencies and came up with a startling result.

That is, the best president based on their assessment? That would be John Tyler.

There may be hope for me, then, and I’m counting on this kid to burnish my reputation after I’m gone. So far he knows I can juggle, which you probably didn’t, so I think it’s working.

 

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