A few days ago, the website Mental Floss posted an amazing, seemingly impossible piece of American trivia, which then quickly spread around the web, to Yahoo, the Huffington Post, ABC News, Fox News, Politico, Kottke, the Daily Mail, and others: Two grandsons of President John Tyler — who was born in 1790 and served as tenth president of the United States — are still alive today. “Thank goodness,” says Harrison Ruffin Tyler, one of those grandsons, who spoke to us earlier this morning from Sherwood Forest Plantation, the historical Tyler family home in Virginia in which he resides. Harrison Tyler is not an immortal vampire, or a 160-year-old freak of nature, but a mentally sharp octogenarian with a soothing Southern drawl and a more favorable opinion of his grandfather’s legacy than the ones held by most presidential historians.
It’s a really interesting story that you’re still, you know, around. Could you just explain how this happened? How someone born in 1790 still has living grandchildren?
Well, he was a good man! [laughs] Both my grandfather — the president — and my father, were married twice. And they had children by their first wives. And their first wives died, and they married again and had more children. And my father was 75 when I was born, his father was 63 when he was born. John Tyler had fifteen children — eight by his first wife, seven by his second wife — so it does get very confusing. I really do not know — it’s amazing how families drift apart. When I was a child, I did know most of the descendents, but as you get more generations down the line, it’s hard to keep track of everybody.
I know you have a brother in Tennessee, too.
Yes, he’s not doing good.
I’m sorry to hear that. I hear that you’re still playing tennis twice a week though.
Oh, yes. But I wish I could play better. I still hit the ball well, but my legs don’t work as good.
That’s still pretty good though. How old are you now?
84. Well, 83, I’m in my 84th year.
So, when you tell people that you’re the grandson of President Tyler, what kind of response do you get? Do they always believe you? Or do people sometimes think you’re making it up?
I don’t know, I don’t bring it up.
Never comes up?
See, I don’t bring it up, so, that question doesn’t come up.
When people come and take tours of the house, you don’t ever come out and say, “Hey! I’m John Tyler’s grandkid!”?
[Laughs] Not that way, no.
We do give tours … We have a friend who manages the place; he gives tours as required. But I tell him, if there’s groups of ten or more people, particularly if there are lovely ladies involved, then I’ll give the tour. [Laughs]
So they believe that you’re the grandson. Nobody questions that.
Nobody’s ever questioned that. I am sometimes called the great-grandson – we have to correct that.
What do you think of your grandfather’s presidency? Where would you rank him among the other presidents?
That’s very difficult. He’s been maligned in some ways, because he was elected to the Confederate Congress, so people say he’s a traitor. But actually, he should be known for his efforts as the organizer of the Peace Conference in Washington in 1861. He tried to get the uncommitted states to all agree on a program, and then get the other states to join in, and get everybody back together. That’s not generally recognized. That’s the thing that he really should be known for. And he did not serve in the Confederate Congress. He was elected, he went to Richmond, where the Confederate Congress moved in January of 1862. He went to take his seat, but he unfortunately had a stroke and died a week later. So, see, I have to argue with people — “No, he didn’t serve.”
Do you follow politics today? Do you have a favorite candidate in the presidential election?
Oh, my family’s conservative, I served as the chairman of the Republican Party here, but I’m sorry, I’ve sort of lost interest. They’re killing each other, on both sides. The campaigns are just horrible. It has nothing to do with what we really need.
Was it like that in John Tyler’s time?
Oh, yes. Politics has always been like that. Nothing new.
This interview has been edited and condensed.