John Tyler: The Brief Civil War Career of Virginia’s Elder Statesman

Monroe-sidewalkThe grave of James Monroe sits in a cage on the crown of a knoll in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. The ornate metalwork that holds him in looks like an oversized birdcage, although whether it’s to keep grave robbers from plundering Monroe’s sarcophagus or to keep Monroe’s spirit from flying away still remains unclear to me.

Monroe’s gravesite sits center-circle, with walkways radiating outward and clusters of other graves crammed around. One of those is that of another chief executive, John Tyler, the 10th president of United States. Relatively obscure, Tyler is best known as the first vice president to ascend to the presidency because the elected president died in office (thus earning him the nickname “His Accidency”). A principled man during office, he nevertheless failed to achieve renomination by his party, which at one point even threatened to impeach him. 

JohnTylerI have often wondered about Tyler’s prominent placement so close to Monroe. True, as ex-presidents, they both deserve respect, but Tyler’s sun never shown as brightly as Monroe’s. In fact, once out of the White House, Tyler’s popularity sank so low that his neighbors deliberately elected him commissioner of roads as an insult–a position he had to accept or pay a fine.

But in the pressure-cooker days leading up to Virginia’s secession, Tyler’s stature rose once more as the Old Dominion’s most prominent elder statesman. Convinced of South’s right to secede, we worked tirelessly in favor of secession. “It is a compounded tragedy…that Tyler had determined to tear Virginia from the Union,” suggests historian Chris DeRose. “With his outsized authority and the solid Unionist presence in the convention, his concerted efforts may well have prevented secession and so much of the misery that followed.”

Tyler won election to Virginia’s secession convention, where he served as chair, and later won a seat in the new Confederate Congress. Like John Quincy Adams serving his post-presidential years in the United States Congress, Tyler’s presence in the Confederate Congress gave him extra stature. At the time of his death on January 18, 1862, he was enjoying newfound heights of popularity across the state.

TylerGraveBustTyler’s death came rather unexpectedly (although his wife had come to Richmond to see him just a day earlier after having a premonition of his death). He laid in state in the Confederate capital and was buried with honors in Hollywood Cemetery near his predecessor, Monroe. While his gravesite is not nearly as elaborate as Monroe’s, the tall obelisk and patinaed bust certainly indicate the public’s high esteem for him–well, at least in Virginia.

“Under other circumstances, a feeling of regret might have pervaded the entire country,” said the New York Herald, “but his treachery to the Union and its laws will prevent those persons in the North…from experiencing sorrow at his demise. He had been Chief Magistrate of the glorious Union, to the destruction of which he devoted the last ill-spent hours of his life.”

The Indiana Messenger, which reprinted part of that obituary, explained that “The obituary of John Tyler need not be long. He was first a traitor to his party and friends, and lately a traitor to his country and his oath. If ever a man deserved the bitter damnation of the traitor-scourging poet, that man is John Tyler.”

TylerGraveOn Presidential Circle today, Monroe and Tyler have plenty of company, although none of it presidential (Jefferson Davis, if one wants to consider him presidential, lies elsewhere the cemetery). Monroe’s caged grave is impossible to miss but Tyler’s obelisk blends in with the others scattered across the knoll. A bust of Tyler adorns the front, though, overlooking the main walkway that brings visitors to the circle—his impassive face impossible to read.

The cemetery has generously reinterpreted history in an effort to rehabilitate Tyler’s reputation: “Before the Civil War broke out he opposed secession…” the cemetery’s website says somewhat misleadingly. “Theodore Roosevelt called him a man ‘of monumental littleness,’ but here in Hollywood we salute him as the hero.”

Imagine, indeed, had that “hero” acted more heroic in his country’s darkest hour. How much misery might he have prevented? How would we remember him today?

2 Responses to John Tyler: The Brief Civil War Career of Virginia’s Elder Statesman

  1. A bit of trivia that some may not be aware of is that Tyler has two living grandsons. Harrison Tyler lives at the family estate, Sherwood Forest, in VA, and Lyon Tyler lives in TN. Both are in their 80s. To think that someone born in 1790 could have living grandchildren is amazing to me!

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