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Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853-1935)

Lyon Gardiner Tyler—son of John Tyler, the tenth President of the United States—was a controversial figure even in his own day and has left a complex and often problematic legacy. He was accomplished professionally, succeeding as an attorney, historian, and prolific author.  He served as William & Mary's 17th President from 1888 to 1919, during which time he was instrumental in reviving its fortunes after it had been moribund for a period of years. He was simultaneously an active professor, teaching a variety of subjects including moral philosophy, civil government, and American history and politics. He served as Chair of the Department of History for many years. Tyler also founded the journal of early American history now known as the William & Mary Quarterly, which is one of America’s oldest and most distinguished scholarly periodicals, and housed at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.  Tyler’s own publications included broad histories of the American nation as well as local histories and works on his own family. 

Lyon Gardiner Tyler was a pioneer campaigner for the preservation of state and local historical records and for government funding of such efforts.  By 1919, his leadership had enabled William & Mary to expand its enrollment to more than 200, enlarge the faculty to 14, renovate or construct 12 buildings, and dramatically increase the endowment. An early advocate of woman suffrage, Tyler also led successful efforts to admit white women and to make William & Mary a public institution, which it remains to this day.

Despite his contributions and accomplishments, the Department of History that now bears his name would abdicate its intellectual and pedagogical responsibilities if it failed to examine all facets of his legacy.  And that legacy is particularly troubling in matters of race and slavery.

Tyler, like many white Southerners of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, maintained that the southern Confederacy had engaged in a purely defensive war in 1861-1865.  Typical of white southern Confederate supporters was Tyler’s insistence in his pamphlet, A Confederate Catechism (1920), and elsewhere that the Confederacy had not fought the Civil War to preserve slavery, but at the same time that enslavement had been beneficial to Africans, and people of African descent, having supposedly, in Tyler’s words, “civilized” them.  Many white Northerners acquiesced in or even adopted these opinions by the early twentieth century.  That so many white Americans accepted this worldview does not excuse its embrace. It was also widely contested at the time, by African American and white leaders and intellectuals who advanced alternative perspectives. Nonetheless, understandings of the past such as those promulgated by Tyler were used to rationalize the denial of civil and human rights to African Americans in the post-Reconstruction U.S. 

In some significant ways, Tyler went even further than other conservative writers of his era.  For example, the dominant white North-South synthesis of Tyler’s mature years honored Abraham Lincoln and hailed a reconciliation of Northerners and Southerners steeped in the blood they had shed together in the Spanish-American War and in World War I.  Woodrow Wilson, a Virginia native with southern sympathies and southern political allies who had served as president of an Ivy League College and governor of a northern state, and who was President of the United States during the latter years of Tyler’s presidency of William & Mary, incarnated the new consensus. 

Yet Tyler remained unreconciled to these components of the conservative synthesis.  He reserved special opprobrium for Abraham Lincoln; he characterized the sixteenth President in print as an “intemperate, arrogant, and self-righteous” man who, in prosecuting the Civil War, had committed “a colossal crime.”  The United States under Woodrow Wilson leadership remained, in Tyler’s view, “a great Northern nation, based on force and controlled by Northern majorities, to which the South, as a conquered province, has had to conform all its policies and ideals.”   Such views, and indeed Tyler’s Catechism itself, are still disseminated today by southern “heritage” and white nationalist movements in the United States. 

In the realm of race relations, William & Mary has to answer for transgressions that preceded and persisted after Lyon Gardiner Tyler’s words and deeds. From its founding until the Civil War, this institution owned enslaved people, and catered to slaveholding students.  The University’s 13th president, Thomas Roderick Dew, published a famous book in 1832 in which he opposed even the gradual emancipation of Virginia’s slaves and touted the state’s prowess in “raising” enslaved people for sale to the Deep South.  And long after Tyler’s death, William & Mary was very slow to integrate its faculty and student body when federal courts eventually mandated desegregation. 

William & Mary proudly commemorates prominent persons and events from its past, although it has tended to downplay less savory but equally significant elements of that past.  It has belatedly started acknowledging some uncomfortable truths; a sustained investigation into this university’s history of racial discrimination is now being undertaken by The Lemon Project, directed by a member of the History faculty, Professor Jody Allen.  To borrow a phrase from Thomas Jefferson—William & Mary alumnus and slaveholder—the same “decent respect to the opinions of [human]kind” that gave rise to the Lemon Project requires our Department to grapple with the complicated history that underlies the Tyler gift.  The 50th anniversary of the admission of the first African American students in residence is currently providing another opportunity to confront that past forthrightly.

We are well aware that William & Mary and the Department we belong to very likely would not exist today without the talents and the devotion that Lyon Gardiner Tyler brought to the leadership of both.  At the same time, we - and our university - must acknowledge the weight of the past, something the Board of Visitors has most recently done in a resolution of apology for the college's use of slave labor and racial discrimination.