In a reminder of just how young the United States is as a country, Mental Floss’ Michele Debczak reports that Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr., grandson of tenth president John Tyler, died on September 26 at age 95. Lyon’s brother Harrison Ruffin Tyler—born in 1928—is still living.
John Tyler was born in 1790, just 14 years after the nation’s founding. He became president in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died in office, and served until 1845. His son Lyon Gardiner Tyler was born in 1853 (a full 12 years before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery), when John was 63. Lyon Gardiner Sr., in turn, was in his 70s when Lyon Gardiner Jr. and Harrison Ruffin were born.
Speaking with CBS News’ Chip Reid in 2018, Harrison Ruffin’s son William said many people are surprised by his close family connection to a president born in the 18th century.
“I find it hard to believe,” he said. “I think it had to do with second wives.”
Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. served as a naval officer in World War II’s Pacific theater. After the war, he joined the Naval Intelligence Reserves, according to his obituary. Lyon later practiced law in Virginia, served as Charles City County’s commonwealth’s attorney and taught at the Virginia Military Institute. In 2000, he moved with his family to Franklin, Tennessee.
The president’s grandson showed no interest in following John into national politics. At a local library event held in February 2010, the Williamson Herald’s Donna O’Neil reported at the time, Lyon described a childhood encounter with a woman who knew about his ancestry, recalling, “She asked me, ‘Little boy, are you going to be president when you grow up?’ ‘No. I’ll bite your head off,’ I said. Then she asked me, ‘What would you do with the bones?’ and I told her, ‘I’ll spit ’em out.’”
John Tyler was the first vice president to assume the presidency upon his predecessor’s death. (Popular lore suggests Harrison caught a cold after delivering a lengthy inauguration speech while not wearing a hat and coat, writes Ronald G. Shafer for the Washington Post, but the ninth president only came down with pneumonia three weeks later, when he was caught in a sudden rainstorm.) Contemporaries questioned whether John—derisively dubbed “His Accidency”—had the right to full presidential powers, and his tenure was ridden with conflict.
In addition to vetoing bills that Harrison had supported, John opposed the creation of a central bank—a priority of the Whig Party that had nominated him as vice president. The year after he succeeded Harrison, John faced an attempted impeachment by the Whig-dominated House of Representatives; Henry Wise, a congressman from Virginia, accused him of lying “like a dog,” while fellow Virginia Representative John Minor Botts, who introduced the impeachment proposal in July 1842, charged him with “the high crime and misdemeanor of endeavoring to excite a disorganizing and revolutionary spirit in the country.”
The Tyler family’s place in American history stretches back even further than the tenth president. His father, John Tyler Sr., was roommates with Thomas Jefferson at the College of William and Mary, where they reportedly played fiddles together, per the Williamson Herald. The elder John Tyler was a strong anti-Federalist who became the governor of Virginia in 1808.
Harrison Ruffin Tyler is now the only living grandchild of a president born in the 18th century. But many other people today can trace a direct line of descent from presidents including founding fathers Jefferson and James Monroe.
In another reminder of how close events detailed in U.S. history books are to the present day, the last person to receive a Civil War pension only died this May. Irene Triplett’s father, Mose Triplett, defected from the Confederate Army to fight for the Union in 1863. As with the Tylers, the Tripletts’ story involved a child born late in the father’s life. Irene was born in 1930, when Mose was 83 and his second wife, Elida Hall, was 34.
Editor's Note, April 3, 2023: This story was updated to correct the year Governor John Tyler Sr. took office.