J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Royall Tyler and What “Dissipation” Meant

So what do I have against Royall Tyler, the young lawyer who said such flattering things about Abigail and John Adams while he courted their daughter in 1782? (This was the younger son of the canny Boston politician Royall Tyler. Picture at right courtesy of NNDB.com.) Why do I say that John’s first, unfavorable response to news of the young suitor, when he wrote to Abigail, “I dont like your Word ‘Dissipation’ at all. I dont know what it means, it may mean every Thing,” was probably wise?

The younger Tyler (1757-1826) received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard in the exciting year of 1776, and then stayed around Cambridge for a while to earn a master’s. During this time he studied law under Francis Dana, who showed up in the John Adams miniseries as minister to Russia (and as such boss of young John Quincy Adams), and Benjamin Hichborn, who didn’t show up on T.V. as the young lawyer who was captured carrying some letters that embarrassed John Adams.

The painter John Trumbull later wrote:

At this period, 1777-8, a club was formed in Boston of young men fresh from college, among whose members were Rufus King, Christopher Gore, William Eustis, Royal Tyler, Thomas Dawes, Aaron Dexter, &c. &c.,—men who in after life became distinguished. The club generally met in my room, regaled themselves with a cup of tea instead of wine, and discussed subjects of literature, politics and war.
Tyler probably drank more than tea during these years. In 1777 he and King were accused of “profanity, noises and breaking windows in Cambridge.” To the university disciplinary committee he declared, “What do I care for a little paltry Degree which may be bought at any time for twenty shillings”?

In 1779 a twenty-three-year-old Harvard housekeeper named Katherine Morse gave birth to an illegitimate child she named Royall. He was long but unofficially identified as Tyler’s child.

Tyler inherited a fairly large fortune and spent about half of it before moving to Braintree to establish himself as a lawyer in early 1782. That was when he began courting the Adams family. His practice did well, and he bought a farm. He secured John and Abigail’s blessing to marry their daughter, Nabby, when the family returned from Europe—and then he neglected her while she was away. Nabby broke off the relationship, as I described yesterday.

Tyler then moved to Boston. In Braintree, he had first lived in the house of Richard and Mary Cranch; Mary was Abigail Adams’s older sister. In Boston, he moved in with another family he’d met in Braintree, the Palmers. Joseph Pearse Palmer was a nephew of Richard Cranch and son of Joseph Palmer, an important Massachusetts official at the start of the war. However, the family had suffered financial difficulties. Joseph P. Palmer was away from home seeking work, and his wife Elizabeth was renting out rooms.

“Family tradition” is often unreliable, especially when it puts the family in a more favorable light than any documentation suggests. However, traditions among Palmer descendants say that Tyler was the father of at least one daughter by Elizabeth Palmer while her husband was out of town. Tyler apparently also had sexual relations of some kind with the Palmers’ daughter Mary, born in 1775. One theory even suggests that Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, born in 1791, was actually Mary’s daughter by Tyler.

By then, Tyler had written The Contrast, the first significant American play. He had also established himself as an attorney in Vermont, settling there in 1790 and eventually becoming chief justice. He would continue to write for the public throughout most of his life, publishing political satires, travel essays, and the popular novel The Algerine Captive in 1797.

According to Mary Palmer’s memoirs, published in Grandmother Tyler’s Book (1925), she and Royall Tyler secretly married in Framingham in May 1794. She gave birth in December, eight months later. As she saw it, “it was ordered by Providence that my first-born, Royall, should compel his father to acknowledge the state of affairs before he meant to do so.” However, it wasn’t until February 1796 that Royall Tyler finally arrived at the Palmer family home to take Mary and the baby to Vermont with him. Even if there had actually been a secret marriage before the birth, that doesn’t reflect well on Tyler.

Other branches of the Palmer family spoke less well of the man than his wife Mary did. In 1833, her sister Elizabeth Peabody published an essay in the Christian Examiner describing an unnamed villain:
a polished man of literary eminence, [known] to enter the sanctuary of sleeping innocence, of absolute childhood, for the basest purpose. . . . He seduced the woman, whose children he would have corrupted, caused the self-murder of a wife and mother, and afterwards married the daughter of that victim.
Five years later Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his notebook of plans for “A political or other satire” in which “the incident of Judge Tyler as related by E—— might be introduced.” Hawthorne’s informant was his future sister-in-law Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, daughter of Elizabeth Peabody. The book Hawthorne planned became The House of Seven Gables, and Royall Tyler was supposedly the inspiration for Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon.


Anonymous said...

Now that's some first rate 'unabashed gossip'!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks! For folks who want a little more detail about the Palmer descendants’ family gossip, check out Bruce A. Ronda’s Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A Reformer on Her Own Terms (1999) and Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters (2005).