John Tyler, who served as the tenth President of the United States from 1841 to 1845, does not rate highly in the pantheon of American presidents, typically ranking near the bottom of surveys that classify U.S. presidents according to their effectiveness in that position. To casual students of U.S. history he is perhaps best remembered today as the latter half of the phrase “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” the famous slogan from the 1840 presidential campaign that paired Tyler as a vice-presidential candidate with William Henry Harrison on the Whig ticket. (In 1811, Harrison, who was then governor of the Indiana Territory, led military forces in a battle against Native American warriors at a site near the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers, thereby acquiring the nickname “Tippecanoe.”)
John Tyler might not be remembered for even that much today were it not for a shocking twist of fate: William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia barely a month into his term, making Tyler the first U.S. vice-president to take over for a chief executive who died in office. Unfortunately for Tyler, having to set that precedent cost him dearly in a political sense. Fierce debate raged over whether the wording of the U.S. constitution meant that a vice-president should become president upon the death of the incumbent, inheriting the full office (e.g., the title of President, all presidential powers, residency in the White House), or whether he should merely fulfill the constitutionally-specified duties of the presidency, acting as a sort of caretaker of the office while Congress guided the nation until the next presidential election. Tyler firmly resolved that he was indeed the President of the United States, both in name and in fact, and he took the oath of office on that basis.
Nonetheless, many of Tyler’s political opponents and detractors refused to accept him as the legitimate President of the United States, derisively referring to him as “His Accidency” and continuing to address him as “Vice-President” or “Acting President.” Tyler, a former Democrat who had since aligned himself with the Whigs, eventually alienated himself from both parties, his entire cabinet resigned, he became the target of the first impeachment proceedings against a president in U.S. history, and neither party nominated him for re-election in 1844. Tyler retired to his Virginia plantation and withdrew from electoral politics until the very end of his life, when he sided with the Confederacy after the outbreak of the Civil War and was elected in November 1861 to the House of Representatives of the First Confederate Congress (but never took part in that body because he died before its first session).
Even if John Tyler may not be remembered kindly by history for his political efforts, he is nonetheless notable today for an unusual aspect of his non-political life: though Tyler was born in the 18th century and died in the middle of the 19th century, two of his grandsons are alive today, more than a decade into the 21st century. It’s a circumstance many people find unbelievable — that there are two people living in the United States today who are the direct offspring of children born to a man who not only served as President of the United States twenty years before Abraham Lincoln did, but who was a contemporary of such titanic early American political figures as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, and was himself born when George Washington was President.
This remarkably short line of ascendancy is due to a confluence of factors that are not common in modern American society but once were not so unusual: men (particularly widowers) marrying much younger women late in life and fathering large numbers of children. John Tyler fathered fifteen children, more than any other U.S. president: eight with his first wife, Letitia Christian Tyler (who was his own age), and seven more with Julia Gardiner Tyler (a woman thirty years his junior) whom he married two years after the death of Letitia. Five of those children lived into the 20th century (the youngest, Pearl Tyler, was still alive after the end of World War II and finally passed away in 1947), and one of them repeated the pattern of his father. John Tyler’s thirteenth child, Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853–1935), had three children with his first wife, Anne Baker Tucker Tyler, and three more with his second wife, Sue Ruffin Tyler (a woman thirty-five years his junior), whom he wed a few years after Anne’s death, when he was nearly 70. One of those latter three children died in infancy. Of his two remaining children, Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. and Harrison Ruffin Tyler (both born in the 1920s), only one, Harrison, is still with us today, the living grandson of the 10th President of the United States. Lyon died on Sept. 26, 2020, at the age of 95.
New York magazine interviewed Harrison in early 2012 and reported that:
Harrison Ruffin Tyler, one of those grandsons, spoke to us from Sherwood Forest Plantation, the historical Tyler family home in Virginia in which he resides. Harrison Tyler is not an immortal vampire, or a 160-year-old freak of nature, but a mentally sharp octogenarian with a soothing Southern drawl and a more favorable opinion of his grandfather’s legacy than the ones held by most presidential historians.
Q: It’s a really interesting story that you’re still, you know, around. Could you just explain how this happened? How someone born in 1790 still has living grandchildren?
A: Well, he was a good man! [laughs] Both my grandfather — the president — and my father, were married twice. And they had children by their first wives. And their first wives died, and they married again and had more children. And my father was 75 when I was born, his father was 63 when he was born. John Tyler had fifteen children — eight by his first wife, seven by his second wife — so it does get very confusing. I really do not know — it’s amazing how families drift apart. When I was a child, I did know most of the descendants, but as you get more generations down the line, it’s hard to keep track of everybody.
Q: So, when you tell people that you’re the grandson of President Tyler, what kind of response do you get? Do they always believe you? Or do people sometimes think you’re making it up?
A: I don’t know, I don’t bring it up.
Q: Never comes up?
A: See, I don’t bring it up, so, that question doesn’t come up.
Q: When people come and take tours of the house, you don’t ever come out and say, “Hey! I’m John Tyler’s grandkid!”?
A: [Laughs] Not that way, no. I am sometimes called the great-grandson — we have to correct that.