Wednesday, December 5, 2012

John Tyler – Sherwood Forest November 17, 2012

 John Tyler, the 10th president, was born in 1790 and served from 1841-1845.

Three of his grandsons fought in the Civil War, one of whom was killed in action.

Astonishingly two of his grandsons are still alive. And one resides at Tyler's Sherwood Forest plantation, the only presidential house where descendants still live.

In fact, we met his wife.

Sherwood Forest
Strange as it may seem, the math works. John Tyler, who fathered 15 total children, had child number 13, Lyon Tyler, at age 63 (1853). Lyon, true to his father, sired his son, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, when he was 75 years old (1928). It was Harrison Ruffian Tyler’s wife, Payne, whom we met.

Actually, Cathy met her as she ambled from the parking area to the plantation house. Mrs. Frances Payne Bouknight Tyler, now 80, was driving up to the house with a friend and stopped to ask Cathy if she could help her. Cathy said we had driven down for a tour we had scheduled with Tim, a friend of the family. With that news, the suspicion vanished from Payne's voice and she thanked Cathy several times for visiting. Then Tim and Tom appeared, Tim chatted with Payne for a bit while petting two dogs in the car, and they were off.

Sherwood Forest, located in Charles City, VA, is about a three hour drive from Washington, DC. The price of the tour is $35 per person but you need to make an appointment in advance. You can also walk the grounds on your own self-guided tour for $10 per person. It’s collected as an honor fee but according to Tim only one in ten people pay.

Who was John Tyler?

John Tyler was steeped in politics all his life; he was Virginia governor as well as a U.S. Congressman and Senator. He began life as a Democrat, advocating state’s rights and a generally limited Federal government. He came to support President Andrew Jackson mainly because Jackson opposed the use of Federal funds for projects that benefited a single state. Tyler was especially supportive in Jackson’s fight against the rechartering of the Second Bank.

However, he broke with President Jackson over the South Carolina nullification issue. He thought that Jackson was violating state’s rights by coming down so hard against South Carolina. He was the only Senator to vote against Jackson’ Force Bill (a bill allowing the use of force to bring South Carolina into line); others who supported nullification vacated the chamber and did not vote.

He was so disenchanted with Jackson, that he ditched the Democratic Party and joined Henry Clay’s new Whig Party.

This might be a good time to get a handle on who exactly the Whigs were. It depended on who you asked. According to May (2008), the Whigs were comprised of several groups. Tyler belonged to a faction consisting of South Carolina slave holders and nullifiers who opposed Jackson and Van Buren.

Another group was a conglomeration of Northern and Northeast merchants, industrialists, and shippers, who supported infrastructure projects, a national bank, and protective tariffs. The leaders of this faction—who also opposed slavery—were Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and our friend, John Q. Adams.

And then there were former Democrats of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio who opposed slavery and state’s rights.

Yet another group consisted of Anti-Masons who thought secret societies had taken over government.

And finally there were the Jeffersonian States Rights Southerners.

In other words a total mélange of views and interests.

Sherwood Forest Plantation

John Tyler purchased Walnut Grove plantation in 1842 while serving as President. He renamed it Sherwood Forest in honor of his self-described reputation as a political outlaw. (If he were running for office in 2008, he might have called himself a “maverick.”)

The Sherwood Forest plantation home, at 300 feet, is the longest frame house in America. It was constructed section by section beginning in 1640. The home is comprised of a main structure joined by long hallways to two dependencies at each end.

Whistler's Walk
One of the dependencies was used as a kitchen and laundry. The long hallway connecting it to the house is known as “Whistlers’ Walk.” When enslaved servants—Harrison owned about 90—carried food to the house, they were required to whistle as they carried the food so they would not have an opportunity to sample it. This dependency is now occasionally occupied by Tyler’s great grandson—as his “man cave.”

At the other end of the structure is the “garçonnière,” a bunkhouse for single male visitors. It is joined to the main house by a long hallway that was specifically built for Tyler’s young wife, Julia, for parties and dances. The long room was ideally suited for the Virginia Reel, the hot dance of the time.

John Tyler, the Accidental President

As we learned during our last presidential visit, John Tyler, was included on William Henry Harrison’s ticket as Vice President, but did not necessarily own views consistent with the Whig Party. So when Harrison was unlucky enough to die in office, the Whigs had on their hands “a situation.”

The Whigs thought that Tyler would be a weak caretaker President and expected the government to be run by the Cabinet. But he had other ideas. The Constitution was not clear on whether the Vice President assumed the duties of the president or actually became President. Tyler decided that he had no interest in being a caretaker President and took the oath of office. Congress agreed and passed resolutions declaring him the President. This set the precedent for all future Presidential successions of which there were to be many. (This process was not included in the Constitution until 1967 as the 25th Amendment.)

Once Tyler shut the front door of the White House behind him he didn’t feel an obligation to toe the line behind Henry Clay’s Whigs. That didn’t go over well and Tyler was derisively called “His Accidency.”

When President Tyler twice vetoed a Whig sponsored national bank bill, he was expelled from the Whig party—the first (and only) President to be expelled from his own party. His entire cabinet, save Secretary of State Daniel Webster, resigned en mass.

When he and Congress locked horns over a tariff bill, the Congress rose up against him and initiated impeachment proceedings—for the first time in history. Ultimately, there were not enough Congressional votes to impeach him but his presidency was damaged.

However, President Tyler did accomplish some things. His foreign policy accomplishments included signing the Webster–Ashburton Treaty of 1842 which resolved a long simmering border dispute with England over the location of the Canadian border.

He is also known for annexing the Republic of Texas into the United States. Remember the Alamo? That blowup happened in 1836 when Andrew Jackson was President. The Texans eventually won independence from Mexico that year and offered themselves to the United States. However, since the Republic of Texas allowed slavery, Jackson was hesitant to accept them—it would cause additional friction between the slave states and free states. The most he could do was recognize their independence. President Van Buren also did not move forward on Texas. However, President Tyler eagerly approved annexation to bring Texas into the United States, which he did three days before he left office.

John Tyler, Superdad

John Tyler had 15 children. With his first wife Letitia—who died at the White House in 1842 from complications from a stroke she suffered years earlier—he had the first eight.

Later that year he became smitten with the young daughter of an Eastern aristocrat, Julia Gardiner. A mere 22 years old, she had just returned to the United States from a European tour. She must have been extremely attractive, because she was courted by many men of all ages. Fifty three year-old John Tyler could not resist her charms either and pursued her immediately. Because of the large age difference their romance was not welcomed overwhelmingly by her family.

In 1844, the Gardiner family was invited aboard the USS Princeton as a guest of the President on a Potomac River cruise. The Princeton’s monstrous 12-inch guns roared occasionally as a demonstration to the guests. On the last firing—a tribute to George Washington directly across from Mt. Vernon—one of the behemothic guns exploded, killing 8-10 people including Julia Gardiner’s father. As our guide, Tim, related it, President Tyler swept Julia up in his arms as she collapsed into a faint. His tender manner convinced Julia that Tyler truly cared for her and she assented soon thereafter to marry.

Julia had to adapt to Tyler’s eight children, three of whom were older than her. But she did adapt and their marriage was by all accounts a contented one. They had seven children together, of which the afore mentioned Harrison R. Tyler is one of the grandchildren.

Since Julie came from money, she had expensive taste. She also desired the prestige that came with the Office of the President. She asked that she be called Mrs. President. According to Tim, she also insisted that the band play Hail to the Chief whenever President Tyler entered a room.

Back to the House

On the Front Porch
It was Payne Tyler whom we met earlier who restored Sherwood Forest when she married into the family. She paid college students to comb through 47,000 family letters to discover clues that would lend authenticity to the restoration plans. (She paid them $1 per letter.)

Tim took us on an almost two hour tour of the house and nearby ground. The house is overflowing with captivating and curious items such as a Chippendale chest (1790), a Fordham Queen Anne grandfather clock (1730), a silver tea gift set from Meriwether Lewis, the President’s original violin, all nine volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759-1767), two of Thomas Jefferson’s stools (Tyler’s father was a friend of Thomas Jefferson), as well as an entire closet filled with Tyler’s White House china (1840).

Atop one of the fireplaces rested two “face shields.” These were employed by women to protect the beeswax makeup on their faces from melting as they relaxed around the fireplace. Thus came the phrase to “mind your beeswax.”

We also learned that there is another—mostly unwelcome—resident of Sherwood Forest, the ghost of the Gray Lady, seen in the vicinity of the Gray Room. It has been spotted several times dating back possibly to before John Tyler’s time. The Gray Lady ghost is thought to be a governess who once cared for a small child that died in her care. Tim himself has seen flashing lights, heard bells ringing, and heard a rocking chair move. Finally Payne had a talk with the ghost to convince her that they all had a right to co-exist in the house. That seemed to quiet things down.

John Tyler, Confederate

According to Tim, Tyler enslaved more than 90 people. As a Virginian, slavery was an institution that Tyler supported unabashedly. In later life, John Tyler became the only President to renounce his allegiance to the United States and join the Confederacy. He was elected to the Confederate Congress but died before serving.

The house is full of evidence of the Tyler family’s Southern sympathies including an original confederate seal as well as a picture of Payne Tyler with her godfather, Strom Thurmond.

There is also an 1865 contract offering the formerly enslaved black Americans a job if they wanted to stay at the plantation. They were offered food, lodging, and medicine in return for wages. (Nobody pointed out to the Tylers that it was these very people who had been providing food to the Tylers.) They signed with an ‘X’ because they were never taught to read and write.

Tyler is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. Tim offered: “If you consider Jefferson Davis a president,” there are either two or three presidents buried at Hollywood Cemetery” in Richmond. We’d like to think there are only two there: Tyler and Monroe.


May, G. 20008. John Tyler. Henry Holt and Company. New York, New York.

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