“White House Kids” Series – Harrison Ruffin Tyler, Grandson of 10th President John Tyler

To many, the history of the United States can seem long – over two centuries of political discourse, social changes, and frequent fluctuations in just about everything else. The history of our nation, however, is relatively short, especially considering that a grandson of tenth President John Tyler is still alive today. Born in 1928, Harrison Ruffin Tyler is currently ninety-four years old, and resides in the enduring homeland of the Tyler clan – the state of Virginia.

President John Tyler (left) and his grandson Harrison Ruffin Tyler (right).

President John Tyler was born in 1790 during the Washington administration. Tyler was an originalist, meaning he was a vehement devotee of the Constitution, holding that it was the most supreme governing document in the land and should be adhered to with no hesitation or compromise. He held this belief during his entire life, but it was especially solidified during his collegiate years spent at the College of William and Mary where he studied law. Political upheaval was constant during the 19th century as the issues of states rights and slavery moved to the political forefront; as abolitionist groups augmented in number, so did the number of staunch supporters of the system of slavery. Tyler was a fervent supporter of states rights, including regarding slavery – when serving in the House of Representatives for the 23rd district of Virginia, he voted against the Missouri Compromise of 1820 because the federal legislation would make Missouri a slave state and Maine a free state in perpetuity. As the states were not obliged to decide on the issue of slavery for themselves, it was for this reason that Tyler voted against it. Tyler did own slaves though he was opposed to the institution.  

Staunch originalist Tyler ran into a wall within the first month of him becoming the Vice President of the United States in the 1840 election. Added to the Whig ticket alongside Presidential candidate William Henry Harrison to garner the support of Southerners, President Harrison died only a month into his term, leaving Tyler at the helm. However, there was some disagreement about his ascendancy; Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the Constitution states that “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President”. The opinion of many was that the unfortunate passing of President Harrison on April 4th, 1841 combined with the text in the Constitution provided that Tyler should take on the duties and powers of the President, but not be established as the actual President. Rather, he would be the “vice president acting president”. Tyler disagreed with this interpretation, and had himself immediately sworn in as President to safeguard the security of the nation (or so he claimed).

Newspaper illustration of VP Tyler receiving the news of President Harrison’s death. Tyler was not in Washington at the time (though he knew Harrison was ill) to prevent looking overly-prepared to assume the Presidency.

Tyler’s first wife Letitia died while he was in office in 1842. She was the first presidential spouse out of three who would die in the White House. Two years later in 1844 when Tyler was 54 he married Julia Gardiner and had seven children with her, one of which being Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853-1935). Lyon was born when Tyler was 63, his age being one of two reasons it can be true that the tenth President has a living grandchild. Lyon would go on to be the 17th President of the College of William and Mary, his father’s alma mater. The second reason it is possible for one of Tyler’s grandchildren to still be living is because Lyon also had a child at an unreasonably old age; after his first wife Anne died in 1921, Lyon married Sue Ruffin who was thirty-five years his junior. In 1928 when Lyon was 75, Sue gave birth to Harrison Ruffin Tyler, who lives to this day. Despite his successful heritage, Harrison would grow up poor during the Great Depression and was homeschooled by his mother for most of his life. When Harrison reached college-age, he was sent a $5,000 check to fund his education – historians believe this check came from Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who was a close friend of his father Lyon). A 1937 letter in the possession of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library attests to this suspicion – sent by Robert Barnhart, a colleague of then-deceased Lyon Tyler, asked for “some assistance in a financial way” for Lyon’s two sons who showed “real intellectual promise”.

Scanned copy of the letter from Mr. Robert Barnhart to President Roosevelt on behalf of the grandchildren of 10th President John Tyler, 1937.

 With this presidential endowment secured, Harrison attended his grandfather’s alma mater, the College of William and Mary, graduating with a degree in chemistry in 1949; he would also receive a Masters in Chemical Engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1951. In 1968 Harrison co-founded a water treatment company called “ChemTreat” that was headquartered in Virginia. In 1975, he purchased the Sherwood Forest Plantation where his grandfather John Tyler lived for the last twenty years of his life and oversaw its restoration. In 2012, Harrison began having a series of small strokes and has developed dementia. One of his sons, William, now oversees Sherwood Forest as it has become a historical landmark and tour site. In 2021, the College of William and Mary honored Harrison by dedicating the “Harrison Ruffin Tyler Department of History” to him after a lifetime of fiscal support and rare document donations on behalf of the Tyler family.

Letitia Christian Tyler, first wife of President Tyler. Painted by George Bagby Matthews, 1885.
Julia Gardiner Tyler, second wife of President Tyler. Painted by Francesco Anelli, 1840s.

*Author’s Note: It is said that William Henry Harrison was the first victim of the “Tippecanoe Curse”. Also known as Tecumseh’s Curse, this urban legend is said to have emerged after the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 when then-Governor of the Indiana Territory (Harrison) defeated Tecumseh’s united Native American forces. The curse is said to affect United States Presidents voted into office in years that end with zero and can be divisible by twenty. So far, the curse has been very effective: 1840 – President Harrison died in office from illness, 1860 – President Lincoln was assassinated during his second term, 1880 – President Garfield was assassinated by an ex-Oneida madman, 1920 – President Harding died in office after suffering a heart attack, 1940 – President Roosevelt died while in his fourth term in office, 1960 – President Kennedy was assassinated while visiting Dallas, and 1980 – there was an attempted assassination on President Reagan, who thankfully survived and may have broken the curse.*

Artist’s illustration of Tecumseh cursing William Henry Harrison.

Written by Katie Costanzo, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.

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