Tyler, Moses Coit 1835-1900

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TYLER, Moses Coit 1835-1900


Born August 2, 1835, in Griswold, CT; died December 28, 1900, in Ithaca, NY; son of Elisha and Mary (Greene) Tyler; married Jeanette Hull Gilbert, 1859; children: Jessica, Edward. Education: University of Michigan, 1852-53; attended Yale University 1853-57 and Yale Divinity School; attended Andover Theological Seminary; Wooster, 1875; attended Columbia University, 1888.


Ordained as Congregational minister, accepted pastorate at Oswego, NY, 1859; pastorate in Poughkeepsie, NY, 1860-62; opened branch school of musical gymnastics under Dr. Dio Lewis, England, 1863; University of Michigan, chair of rhetoric and English literature and Episcopalian priest; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, chair in U.S. history, 1881; co-founder, American Historical Review, 1895.


American Historical Association (co-founder, 1884; vice president, 1900), American Philosophical Society.


University of New Brunswick, honorary doctor of laws.


The Brawnville Papers: Being Memorials of the Brawnville Athletic Club, Fields, Osgood (Boston, MA), 1869.

A History of American Literature, 1607-1765, 2 volumes, Putnam's (New York, NY), 1878, revised as A History of American Literature during the Colonial Time, 2 volumes, Putnam's (New York, NY), 1897.

(Reviser) Henry Morley, A Manual of English Literature, Sheldon (New York, NY), 1879.

Patrick Henry, Houghton, Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1887, revised, 1899.

Three Men of Letters, Putnam's (New York, NY), 1895.

The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763-1783, 2 volumes, Putnam's (New York, NY), 1897.

Glimpses of England, Social, Political, Literary, Putnam's (New York, NY), 1898.

Moses Coit Tyler: Selections from His Letters and Diaries, edited by Jessica Tyler Austen, Doubleday, Page (Garden City, NJ), 1911.

Contributor to books, including The New Gymnastics for Men, Women, and Children by Dio Lewis, Ticknor & Fields (Boston, MA), 1868; and Library of Universal History, 8 volumes, Peale & Hill (New York, NY), 1897.

Contributor to periodical publications including Independent, Papers of the American Historical Association, Literary World, Political Science Quarterly, American Historical Review, Nation and North American Review.


Best known for his A History of American Literature, 1607-1765 and The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763-1783, Moses Coit Tyler was the first academic to systematically interpret American history through the country's literature.

Shortly after his birth, Tyler's family moved to Constantia, New York, and from there to towns in Michigan before settling in Detroit, where Elisha Tyler became a merchant and where his children grew up. Moses attended public schools, graduating at age fifteen. He then taught school in Romeo, Michigan, and also worked as a book agent before enrolling at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1852. A year later he transferred to Yale University, graduating in 1857. Afterwards, he began to prepare for the Congregational ministry, first at the Yale Theological Seminary where he stayed for one year, and then at Andover Seminary.

Though he did not receive a seminary degree, Tyler accepted the pastorship position of a Congregational church in Oswego, New York, in 1859 when he was ordained as a minister. That year, he married Jeannette Hull Gilbert, with whom he had two children, Jessica and Edward Scott. He stayed in Oswego until 1862, when a physical breakdown led him to give up the congregation in Poughkeepsie; he did not preach again for fourteen years. In 1877 Tyler converted to Episcopalianism, served as an Episcopal deacon the next year, and in 1883 was ordained an Episcopal priest.

Following his poor health, Tyler sought self-remedy. He came across Dr. Dio Lewis of Boston, who had invented a system of "musical" calisthenics, which the doctor claimed had health-giving properties. In 1863 Tyler, by then a Lewis convert, left for England to establish a clinic for musical calisthenics. The ideas were well received and advertised on placards that announced him as the "Great American Orator." To supplement his income, Tyler wrote for American publications, including Independent, Herald of Health, and Nation. In 1865 he anonymously published the poem "The Omnibus."

Tyler's interest in musical calisthenics led to his first book, The Brawnville Papers: Being Memorials of the Brawnville Athletic Club, in which he presents arguments for and against physical education. In writing the book he attempted one of his ideal career choices; as Doren Alvarez Saar noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "In his diaries he records his vacillations between what he believed were his three career choices: the ministry, academia, and literary life." Due to the book's limited intellectual scope, Tyler soon found The Brawnville Papers a great embarassment. As Alexander Moore wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "The Brawnville Papers was Tyler's only venture into fictionwriting, and it amply satisfied a private suspicion that he had little talent in that line."

Tyler returned to the United States in 1866, intending to be a journalist and lecturer, but by the fall of 1867 he became a professor of rhetoric and English literature at the University of Michigan. He demanded that students read full texts, not abridged versions as in many other courses. Her also encouraged independent thought through discussion and research, and was one of the first to suggest that American literature belonged in the college curriculum. Saar added: "Tyler was known as a memorable teacher who had revolutionized the teaching of literature."

In 1873 Tyler resigned from the University of Michigan to become literary editor of Henry Ward Beecher's Christian Union. Though his tenure was brief, the content of his writings for Christian Union influenced his later scholarly writings.

He returned to Michigan in 1874, and that year, began his A History of American Literature, 1607-1765, which became the first account to systematically interpret American history through American literature. The two-volume work, an encyclopedic history, describes the oeuvre of almost 150 writers and span more than 150 years, from the landing at Jamestown to the eve of the American Revolution. These books resonated with readers because, as Saar mentioned, they made "history accessible by engaging readers in the drama of personality." Despite its open bias against Native Americans and disproportionate focus on New England, A History of American Literature, 1607-1765 was well received. As Moore wrote: "Tyler broke new ground with every chapter. He was also the first scholar to organize the whole field of American colonial literature into genres and to write critically about representatives of each genre. In addition to poetry, drama, and essays, he studied the literature of travel and exploration, Puritan sermons, captivity narratives, almanacs, and the early colonial histories." Suddenly regarded as a great scholar of American literary history, Tyler was invited, and accepted, in 1881 to be professor of American history at Cornell University, the first school to create a professorship in the field. There he remained for the rest of his life, and began work on the sequel to A History of American Literature, 1607-1765.

In 1884 Tyler, with Charles Kendall Adams, professor of history at Michigan, and Frank B. Sanborn, secretary of the American Social Science Foundation, founded the American Historical Association. As Saar explained: "This group of historians rejected the romantic/patriotic school and its uncritical mythology of America and sought historical accuracy, thus anticipating the school of history."

Tyler's biography Patrick Henry was published in September of 1887 as part of John Troy Morse's "American Statesmen" series. It remained the definitive Patrick Henry biography for decades following.

Tyler's next publication, Three Men of Letters, appeared in 1895. The first of the book's three chapters details the journeys of the Very Reverend George Berkeley, dean of Derry in Newport, Rhode Island, from 1729 to 1731. The literary biographies of Timothy Dwight and Joel Barlow comprise the remaining two chapters.

The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763-1783 was Tyler's second major work. Here, as in his previous encyclopedic volumes on the colonies, Tyler included historical biography, political and religious tracts, songs, ballads, and almanacs, along with the more usual drama and poetry, to describe the Revolutionary era. He also, in a controversial move, portrayed the Loyalists fairly by claiming that they were simply "conservatives wanting to maintain the status quo, as much in love with liberty and America as any patriot," an approach which had not entered history books before Tyler.

Tyler's two major works, A History of American Literature, 1607-1765 and The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763-1783, are still popular. As Moore noted, "They remain today the standard works on American literature and the starting points of all modern writing on the subject. The History and Literary History are uniformly the first entries in bibliographies and the first mentioned in critical studies of American colonial literature."



Bailyn, Bernard, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1974.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 47: American Historians, 1866-1912, 1986, Volume 64: American Literary Critics and Scholars, 1850-1880, 1988.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.


History Teacher, November, 1983.

Journal of American History, March, 1977.

Journal of the History of Ideas, 1964.*

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