Pre-Civil War president's grandson visits Lifelong Learning

By Janel Shoun-Smith on 3/12/2014

  
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Lyon Tyler Jr., 89, sat in a wheelchair for his speech, in front of a projected image of the late President John Tyler. When he turned his head to the side, the resemblance was unmistakable. That nose… and that chin!

There’s no mistaking the resemblance. Lyon Tyler of Franklin, Tenn., is indeed the grandson of President John Tyler, who led the nation from 1841-1845. The younger Tyler stopped by Lipscomb’s Lifelong Learning program on Tuesday, March 4, to give a talk about his grandfather, one of the leaders studied in the “Presidents You Wish You Knew More About” class.

The class participants, people of retirement and semi-retirement age and other community members, were thrilled to meet a relative of a president who was sworn in more than 170 year ago.

“It’s kind of mind-blowing,” Tim Johnson, Lipscomb professor of history and university research professor, said of the time span between grandfather and grandson. “Tyler was an underrated president. Lyon Tyler is an avid student of his grandfather’s presidency, so he was glad to come discuss what an honorable and honest man he was. ”

“John Tyler was not perfect, but he came close,” said Lyon Tyler in his speech to the class.

John Tyler, a Virginian, was born in 1790.  His wife, Letitia, was an invalid at the time he became president and died soon thereafter, making him the first president to be widowed while in office. He later married Julia, who was 30 years younger, making him the first president to be married while in office. They had seven children, including Lyon Tyler Sr., born in 1853. Lyon Tyler Jr. was born in 1925, when Lyon Tyler Sr. was in his 70s.

John Tyler was actually never elected president. He was the vice presidential candidate for war hero William Henry Harrison. Their campaign is largely remembered for the phrase “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” a reference to Harrison’s battle heroics and a subtle reference to how the two candidates’ political views balanced each other.

Harrison, who insisted on making an extremely long inaugural speech in frigid winter temperatures, caught pneumonia soon after his swearing in and died a month later. Tyler became the first vice president to ascend to the job of president, and the strict constructionist had to fight off plenty of legislators arguing that he should not be president, because of the ambiguity in the Constitution on the subject.

Lyon Tyler outlined John Tyler’s political career for the class, noting that he was governor of Virginia, describing the political events that led him to defect from the Democrat to the Whig party and the political events that led him to be expelled from the Whig party.

Historians have called John Tyler “the man without a party,” Lyon Tyler said, “but everyone turned out for Julia’s parties.” In her youth, the president’s young wife was called the “Rose of Long Island,” he said.

As the Civil War approached, Tyler sided with Virginia’s desire to secede, making him the first president to be branded a traitor. Because the politicians of the day called him an outlaw, Tyler decided to name his Virginia estate Sherwood Forest, Lyon Tyler said.

Lyon Tyler Jr. served in the Navy in the Pacific Theater in World War II. He earned a law degree from the University of Virginia, and served as the district attorney for Charles City County, Va., the site of his family’s homestead. Then at age 40, he went back to school to earn his Ph.D. in history from Duke, and taught at The Citadel.

Lyon Tyler’s wife’s family was from Franklin, so they visited Middle Tennessee often and eventually he retired there. His daughter Susan Tyler, who accompanied him to the class, is a 1988 Lipscomb graduate.

About Lipscomb’s Lifelong Learning Program

The Lifelong Learning Program offers people of retirement and semi-retirement age an opportunity to expand knowledge and explore new ideas in an informal, noncompetitive environment.

Session two of the spring term begins March 24 and ends in April. The classes meet for one-and-a-half hours in the daytime once a week for five weeks.

Classes beginning later in March include:

  • The History of Rock and Roll Music
  • Cold Case Investigations of Nashville
  • The Christian World(s) of J.R. R. Tolkien
  • An Introduction to the Study of Islam

For more information or to register for classes, go to http://www.lipscomb.edu/alumni/lifelong-learning.