The death on September 26 last year of the historian Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr at the age of 95 affords a reminder that, though the past may, as L.P. Hartley observed, be a foreign country, it is sometimes a great dealer closer than might be generally imagined. For Professor Tyler was the grandson of John Tyler, born in 1790 and president of the USA between 1841 and 1845.
And to go one generation further back, President Tyler’s father, another John, had been Thomas Jefferson’s roommate at the College of William and Mary and later served as governor of Virginia from 1808 to 1811. This John Tyler, the recently deceased’s great-grandfather, had been born in 1747, when Johann Sebastian Bach was still alive, George II was king in England and the American Revolution still lay 29 years in the future.
The Tyler family excelled in procreation, not least in old age. President Tyler fathered eight children by his first wife and seven by his second. He was 63 in 1853, when his 13th child, the first Lyon Gardiner Tyler, was born. This son, who lived until 1931, served as president of William and Mary from 1888 to 1919 but was able to produce only six children. Like his father, however, he continued to labor well into his seventies. Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr, his fourth child, appeared in 1925.
A correspondence in the London Sunday Telegraph in 1995 revealed that such long generational spans are not uncommon. ‘My husband’s father was born in February 1838,’ revealed Gladys Gage from Reading, near London. ‘My grandfather was taken on to the Hoe at Plymouth aged four to view the return of the troops from Waterloo,’ wrote Mrs Munro-Faure from Devon. ‘My grandfather was born in 1818,’ observed Margaret Myles from Perthshire in Scotland. ‘His grandfather was born in 1626.’ Henry Button, in Cambridge, mentioned Miss Alice Grigg, who died in April 1970 aged 106, and whom he believed to be the last person in England whose father had been born in the 18th century. Eddie Bass revealed that his father had been 19 when the American Civil War broke out. Michael Berry aired the possibility that fewer than 20 connections between people could date back to 1066.
So, fare forward, travelers. There are, after all, children alive today whose offspring might possibly see the 23rd century. Pandemics permitting, of course.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2021 US edition.