Alabamiana: Richard Tyler, 1816 – 1877

It was Veterans Day, and I was walking with my daughter on the grounds of the state capitol building when a man in a rough-hewn dark-gray Confederate sailor suit approached us. We had been looking at the statue of J. Marion Sims that flanks the front steps, when the costumed man asked if we knew who that was. We told him yes, that we did, and had just been by his historic marker on Perry Street. The man was obviously not satisfied with his inability to coax us into hearing a recitation on certain historical facts – he quickly explained why he dressed up and why we should value our Confederate heritage – so he shifted gears then, asking us if we knew about Letitia Christian Tyler. No, never heard of that one . . .

A namesake of her grandmother who was the First Lady, wife of tenth US president John Tyler, Letitia Christian Tyler lived from 1842 – 1924 and gained notoriety when, as a young woman, she personally raised the Confederate flag over the fledgling nation’s capitol. She is buried, the sailor told us, in Oakwood Cemetery, and he pointed north across the capitol grounds toward the sprawling cemetery on the next hill.

Not much for Confederate history, I wasn’t terribly interested in this flag-raising granddaughter of a US president. We thanked him for his time then moved on and had a little chuckle about how we could tell that the re-enactor would have continued to talk as long as we had let him. Nice guy, I told my daughter; she nodded in agreement. That was the end of it.

Later that day, after we had come home, I remembered for a moment about Letitia Tyler, and thought, I’ll get on the internet and look her up right quick. Though there wasn’t much on her, I found something else that did interest me: her father, Robert Tyler.

Born in 1816, the son of man who would become president in 1841, one would think that Robert Tyler would have it made. According to his brief biography on The White House’s website, John Tyler was a US congressman from 1816 until 1821, then the governor of Virginia, before that “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” slogan catapulted him into the nation’s vice presidency. When William Henry Harrison died, John Tyler became president. During the brief Tyler administration, son Robert worked as his father’s personal secretary.

Prior to all of that presidency business, in 1839, Robert Tyler published a book of poems titled “Poems Comprising the Last Man: The Elements of the Beautiful, and Death.” In its brief preface, the poet excuses himself from a certain level of scrutiny by admitting to the unoriginal subject matter and reminding his readers that he was only 19 when he wrote the poems. (That would make the composition date four years earlier, in 1835.) The book’s dedication reads: “To Robert Saunders, Esq. Professor of Mathematics, Etc. William and Mary College.” (Robert Saunders, Jr. taught math  at William and Mary from 1833 until 1847, then became the president of the college in 1847 and 1848. He later served as mayor of Williamsburg.)

During this same time period, Robert married Priscilla Cooper. Their wedding announcement, dated Friday, September 20, 1839 reads: “Bristol, Pa. 12th inst. by Rev. Mr. Perkins, Robert Tyler of Virginia to Elizabeth Priscilla, daughter of Thomas A. Cooper and grand daughter of the late Jame Farlie of this city.” The couple were married on September 12, and the news ran eight days later.

Robert’s wife Priscilla has an intriguing story of her own. An actress and the daughter of one-time prosperous theater owner Thomas Cooper, Priscilla got a job at the White House, acting as a stand-in hostess for the invalid First Lady Letitia Tyler. One source describes her

as America’s First Lady from 1842-1844, even though she was never married to a president. Instead, Priscilla served in place of her mother-in-law, Letitia Tyler, who was confined to a wheel chair and seldom appeared officially in public.

There, she met Robert Tyler, who was her same age, and they were married two months later.

After his father’s less-than-one-term presidency ended, Robert Tyler became chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee of Pennsylvania. The 1850 census shows 33-year-old Robert and 33-year-old Priscilla in Bristol with three children: Letitia, 8; Priscilla, 1; and Grace, 4. (The record on FindAGrave.com says that there was another daughter, Mary, who died in childhood, only living from 1840 – 1845.)

However, despite his prominent family’s political connections and his apparent successes, Robert Tyler chose the Confederacy over the Union in 1861. According to one Library of Congress record, he “fled to Richmond Va. during Civil War,” and two public stories on Ancestry.com claim that “an antisouthern mob attacked [Tyler’s] home” when the Civil War began and “he had to flee Philadelphia.”

So this son of a US president, a prominent player in the Democratic Party, returned to the South to take a leadership role in the “Lost Cause” of the Confederate States of America.  Tyler replaced prominent Alabamian Alexander B. Clitherall, who resigned, as the second Register of the Confederate Treasury. Tyler’s signature can be found on bonds issued by the government and on the Confederate dollar bill. But, of course, the South lost the war . . .

On August 7, 1865, about four months after the surrender at Appomattox, The New York Times reprinted a letter by Tyler to the Richmond Republic, printed on August 2, addressing the issue of former Confederate officials. Tyler’s temperate urging is that “no person who has held a commission in civil or military service of the late Confederate Government” should run for public office of any kind in the newly rejoined state of Virginia. No, he writes, “those citizens who were prominently identified with the cause of the Confederacy should exercise a rigid political abstinence at this time.”

Though he obviously returned to Virginia, most likely when the capitol moved from Montgomery to Richmond, the 1870 census has Tyler back living in Montgomery, though it incorrectly has his age as 51. With him are his wife Priscilla, and four children: 22-year-old Letitia, 18-year-old Elizabeth, 16-year-old Julia and 12-year-old Robert, as well as three domestic servants: Catherine Moore and what looks like her two children, Fannie and James. These ages appear to be generally incorrect, since for example Letitia has only aged fourteen years in the two decades since 1850.

According to William and Mary’s special collections page on him, Robert Tyler “was broke after the war and settled in Montgomery, Alabama where he became wealthy again as a lawyer and publisher of the Montgomery Advertiser. He was also a leader of the state Democratic Party in Alabama.” The Encyclopedia of Alabama explains, “During Reconstruction, the Advertiser continued to promote southern rights and the Democratic Party,” and also “[i]n the lead-up to a vote on a new state constitution on February 4-5, 1868, editor Robert Tyler called for its defeat.”

Tyler may have been “broke” but he had maintained a certain degree of power. That 1868 constitution was not ratified because of some astute political thinking and organizing. According to the Alabama legislature’s website:

At the expiration of the five-day voting period, the final tally was 70,182 “for” the Constitution, and 1,005 “against” – a clear majority of those voting, but the total of the two was woefully short of the requisite majority of registered voters.

The foremost reason for this deficit became increasingly clear throughout the five-day period of balloting. Those white voters still eligible to vote, simply did not show up at the polls. It was by no means incidental. Rather, it was the result of an intense effort of non-participation by white voters, in order to prevent the total voter participation from reaching the required majority. The immediate success of this effort is borne out by the numbers: Of approximately 95,000 registered black voters, over 63,000 participated in the referendum; of approximately 75,000 registered white voters, only 6,700 bothered to vote.

Certainly, Robert Tyler wasn’t personally responsible for this feat of maneuvering to thwart Ulysses S. Grant’s political will, though his party’s machinery was.

Robert Tyler died on December 3, 1877, the year that historians typically mark as the end of Reconstruction. Once the Old South was gone, and all hope of its resurgence lost too, Tyler went out with it. He shares a large, flat-lying marble tombstone with his wife Priscilla in Montgomery’s Oakwood Cemetery. In more recent years, a small white-marble CSA marker has been added. Unlike famous names, such as Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee, Robert Tyler is one of the guys you might know about . . . unless you get sidetracked by a Confederate re-enactor who is itchy to share.

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