August 23rd, 2019

Senate Report: Royall Tyler – Distinguished Vermont Author

By Senator Bill Doyle

Royall Tyler, early Vermont author, has been described by Frederick Tupper in this way:

“His writings and his fame are not the exclusive possession of his adopted Vermont or even of his native New England, but are a part and by no means a negligible part, of the literary history of America. As the writer of the first American comedy regularly acted by professionals, as the author of the first American novel republished in England, as the creator of the Yankee type on stage and in story, as the composer of fictitious letters of international interest, as the producer of periodical essays and verses, Royall Tyler is not to be reckoned for a moment with merely provincial notables. The best in his genius is not peculiar to one little corner of the earth.”

Tyler was born in Boston, served as a military aide during the American Revolution and was involved in suppressing Shay’s Rebellion, which first brought him to Vermont. The Rebellion, which first brought him to Massachusetts farmers near Springfield and was put down by the government. The Rebellion so concerned George Washington that he proposed a Constitutional Convention that took place in Philadelphia in 1787. Washington felt that the existing government under the Articles of Confederation was not working, and a new constitution was needed.

He settled in Vermont in 1791, the same year when Vermont became the first state to join the union. Tyler had wanted to marry John Adams’ daughter, but failed to win family approval. The family took the daughter to Europe for a summer, which more or less ended the chance of marriage. Subsequently, however, he had a very successful marriage to Mary Palmer Tyler, and they moved to Guilford, VT.

Tyler divided his time between being a state’s attorney for Windham County and writing literature. In 1801, he and his wife moved to a farm in Brattleboro. He became very well known for his speaking ability and as a jurist with compassion.

In 1802, he was appointed as a trustee of the University of Vermont and later became a professor of law from 1811 to 1814. In between those dates, he became the Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.

Tyler changed political parties from Federalist to Jeffersonian, and when he supported the War of 1812, he lost his chief justiceship. He had written to Jeffersonian Congressman James Fisk of Barre that a declaration of the war against Great Britain was the only way confidence could be restored in the national government. He said it would place the Federalist opposition party on “slippery ground and drive them into rebellion.”

Tyler is perhaps best known for his play “The Contrast”. Tyler described the people who lived in our new nation as energetic and virile, while characterizing Europeans as foppish and decadent. In 1809, he wrote The Yankee in London. Earlier, in 1797, he published a novel The Algerine Captive, which won him international acclaim. This was the first time American fiction had been reproduced in England. Tyler talks in this novel about early New England life in pioneer days and then later, his experiences in the late 18th century. The University of Vermont recognized his genius by creating the Royall Theater in Burlington.

Tupper concluded his essay on Tyler in this way, “The Last of Tyler’s life are those of distinguished lawyer, who, after his enforced retirement from the Supreme Court Bench, practiced at Brattleboro most successfully, and of a gallant gentleman who endured heroically for many years great suffering until relief and rest came in 1826. To the last, he was a man of letters – that is one whose thought must find expression through pen-point.”

Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee, and is the Senate Assistant Minority Leader. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail wdoyle@leg.state.vt.us; or call 223-2851.

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