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Family and freedom: Lessons from President Tyler’s legacy

His birthday came and went this week with little fanfare. John Tyler’s life dates back to the inaugural year of Washington’s presidency, and his own presidency commenced two decades prior to Lincoln’s. But unlike the first and 16th presidents, whose esteemed memories are marked by calendar and commemoration, the 10th U.S. president is little remembered, if not largely reviled. For many, his memory begins and ends with the catchy campaign slogan of 1840, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.”

But the all-but-forgotten antebellum figure leaves behind living reasons to remember him today: two grandsons, along with the president’s 18th century home that’s still in the family’s care.

And imbedded in the Tyler family legacy are lessons for us on slavery and bondage and freedom and a home—schoolmasters reminding us of a bloody yesterday and pointing us toward a bright tomorrow.

Tyler’s ‘quiver’ full of children

Born on March 29, 1790, President John Tyler would have turned 226 on Tuesday, and April 6 will mark the 175th anniversary of his swearing-in to the Oval Office upon the sudden death of his predecessor, William Henry Harrison, who succumbed to pneumonia after just 31 days in office. “His Accidency,” as detractors dubbed the Virginian who replaced Harrison, fathered 15 biological children with two wives over the course of a 45-year span. He breathed his last on January 18, 1862, at age 71.

Yet, remarkably, Tyler grandsons Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr., 92, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler, 87, still walk among us today. Late-age procreation helps to explain: President Tyler fathered son Lyon at age 63 with a second wife 30 years his junior; in turn, Lyon fathered Lyon Jr. and Harrison in his 70s with a second wife 36 years younger. Like father, like son, one might conclude.

The two grandsons serve as living reminders that our history as a nation, blood stains and all, is not all that distant, and that our struggle for her soul is still very much alive. Home and family, the Tyler grandfather-grandson legacy further remind us, stretch beyond brick and mortar and bloodlines and mortality. They reach forward into eternity.

I was reminded of these things not long ago.

‘Conversations’ with grandfather Tyler

“Closed for a private event,” the apologetic voice explained. The news came as a disappointment. I had hoped to walk the weathered wood floors and roam the ornate rooms of President Tyler’s Sherwood Forest Plantation home just outside Williamsburg, Virginia, during a recent visit. Instead, a peek through the windows would be the closest I’d get to gracing the door of the 300-foot-long residence, the nation’s longest frame house. Nor would I find grandsons Lyon and Harrison seated on the front porch, waiting to greet this uninvited guest.

But as I ascended the front steps, I envisioned the brothers there—heirs of history eager to relay stories of their grandfather from a bygone era. Lyon and Harrison, of course, never knew their grandfather. They didn’t get to ask him about Washington and the founding, about Lincoln and emancipation. Yet they heard the stories from their father.

John Tyler was a man of presidential firsts—first to assume the presidency upon the death of the chief executive; first to marry while president (his first wife died in 1842); first to be subject to impeachment proceedings; and first to govern the nation without a party (the Whigs forsook him).

Tyler was also the first (and only) president to later become a sworn enemy of the United States with his election to the Confederate House of Representatives in 1861. And President Lincoln, a political rival, ensured Tyler became the first former president to receive no official recognition from the White House upon his death. Put another way, in the Union’s eyes Tyler was decidedly not, as Henry Lee eulogized of General Washington, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

John Tyler was, in one sense, a man between the times.

Slavery and freedom, then and now

In the mid-19th century, slavery ripped the fragile fabric of the American experiment woven with the “self-evident” truth, expressed by Tyler’s one-time mentor Thomas Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The “house divided” that Lincoln long lamented had not yet truly united. Freedom fashioned friends only among the fairer-skinned. Millions, meanwhile, stood on the outside looking in.

As I stood on Tyler’s Sherwood Forest doorstep, peering in, on that overcast March day, I thought about the slaves who labored on the 1,600-acre plantation, some of whom would one day find freedom. The price to secure that freedom meant, tragically, the blood of more than 600,000 slain.

My mind journeyed back further still. I thought about the children of Israel, enslaved for 400 years in Egyptian bondage before finding freedom from their chains. The blood of lambs, painted across their doors as a symbol of a Lamb to come, secured that freedom.

In the absence of a word from the Tyler grandsons, my mind hearkened back to the voice of Moses, relaying the Lord’s commission to the Israelites standing at the edge of the Promised Land. His was a command to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” a charge they were to pass down to “your son and your son’s son,” to teach “diligently to your children” (Deut. 6:1–9).

Family and freedom in Christ

Still standing at Tyler’s door, I thought, too, about the freedom to which Moses and the children of Israel pointed with that blood across the doorposts. That freedom was not bought by the blood of animals or common men. Nor was it a struggle between North and South, a Civil War of Tyler’s and Lincoln’s time. It was, instead, a cosmic war between the powers of heaven and hell, and the victor was and is the person of Jesus Christ.

He was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, he announced, “to proclaim liberty to the captives” and “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). This deliverer paid, with his own blood, the price for original sin common to all of us through Adam’s blood.

By his resurrection, he broke the bars of death and breaks our chains of sin, no longer to “receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.” He goes yet further, granting “the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ . . . and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:15–17).

What this Man called the Door opens to us, I remembered at Tyler’s door, is a freedom and a family, a Father and the fortune of his Son.

Jesus Christ was—and is—a Man between the times. More than that, he rules outside of them, seated supreme, inviting others inside.

The chains of our forefathers

I’ll leave it to others to write the history of the man called “His Accidency,” a man who stood between the times, at water’s edge, of slavery and freedom. But whatever the 10th president’s legacy, let us learn from the bloody final days of Tyler’s time and look forward to a day beyond Lincoln’s and our own, one in which wars shall cease and God alone shall grant a “just and lasting peace.” No more shackles, no “house divided.”

The living presence of two of the 10th president’s grandsons is, if anything, a reminder that our history is not all that distant after all; that our forefathers didn’t always get it right. Many of them carried troubled consciences over America’s “original sin” to their graves.

And, today, many find themselves, like President Tyler, a person without a party. Wars and factions may demand as much of us. But let none of us die a man or woman without a home. Each one of us can dwell as son or daughter in a Father’s house with “many rooms”—space aplenty for innumerable quivers full, like Tyler’s (John 14:1–4).

The future land of the free is the home of the forgiven and the Man truly called brave. Christ’s ascension to the highest of thrones was anything but accidental, and it required the death of no life but his own, of his own accord.

Retelling our story

Ours is a bloody history, to be sure, but one the next generations need to hear. Let none of us wear the chains of our past, but let’s not forget them, either. And let’s point those coming behind us to the freedom we’ve found.

We should tell them our national story, yes, but let’s not neglect our spiritual one: that we were once “slaves to sin” and that “the slave does not remain in the house forever,” but that “the son remains forever”—and sons now we are, set free by the truth in God’s Son (John 8:34–36). Let’s tell them we have, in Christ who “is faithful over God’s house as a son,” found freedom, a home (Heb. 3:6).

May fathers and grandfathers—mothers and grandmothers and all who have left their chains—be faithful to share that story with children and grandchildren everywhere. May our story become their story. And may none of them, none of us, die an outsider looking in.

There are, after all, no grandchildren in that “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1). Only sons and daughters, adopted and set free—free indeed.

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