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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Royall Tyler

When Royall Tyler graduated from Harvard in July 1776, there was no formal commencement for the senior class. Graduation was overshadowed by the political turmoil resulting from the Declaration of Independence. Tyler went on to distinguish himself by becoming a lawyer, a judge, an essayist, an author, a professor, and the creator of The Contrast (1787), the first American play to be professionally produced and commercially successful.

Royall Tyler was born in Boston on July 18, 1757, the youngest of four children. His father was Royall Tyler, a wealthy merchant actively involved in politics, and his mother was Mary Steele, daughter of Captain John Steele. His birth name was William Clark Tyler, but upon his father’s death in 1771, he legally changed it to Royall Tyler at the request of his mother. He attended the Boston Latin School, completing the seven years of study by the age of fifteen, and entered Harvard on July 15, 1772. Tyler soon established a reputation as a good student with a quick wit who was apparently quite the practical joker. One tale has him sending a fishing line out of a dormitory window in order to catch a pig from the yard below, only to hook the wig of Samuel Langdon, the school’s president. Tyler was also considered rather flamboyant if not profligate for squandering half of his inheritance while in college and during the years immediately after.

After graduation, Tyler began reading law, but in December his studies were interrupted when he joined the Continental Army, initially serving under Colonel John Hancock. In 1778, Tyler became a major and an aide to General John Sullivan. In late 1778, he returned to his legal studies, received his master’s degree from Harvard in 1779, and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar on August 19, 1780. Two years later, he began his practice in Braintree, Massachusetts, eight miles outside of Boston, where he roomed with the family of Mary and Richard Cranch. From these associations Tyler met Abigail (“Nabby”) Adams, daughter of John and Abigail. With John Adams dispatched to Europe, Abigail Adams reported on the growing attachment between their seventeen-year-old-daughter and Tyler. In a December 23, 1782, letter to John, she describes Tyler as having “a sprightly fancy, a warm imagination and an agreeable person,” but then adds, “he was rather negligent in pursueing (sic) his business...and dissipated two or 3 years of his Life and too much of his fortune for to reflect upon with pleasure; all of which he now laments but cannot recall.” Although John Adams admits that he was impressed by Tyler’s family and that he would prefer a lawyer for his daughter, he was not “looking for a Poet, nor a Professor of belle Letters.” The attachment was thus broken off, and in 1786, young Abigail married Colonel William Stephens Smith. The match turned out to be an unfortunate one because Smith repeatedly failed in business ventures. As for Tyler, he was deeply depressed by the breakup and went into seclusion to live with his mother in Jamaica Plain. By the fall of 1786, however, he had resumed his law practice in Boston and begun boarding at the home of Joseph Pearse Palmer.

In 1787, Tyler played a role in suppressing Shays’s Rebellion, a group of dissident farmers led by Daniel Shays fighting for land rights, and helped to negotiate a surrender. These events brought Tyler to Vermont, where he would live for thirty-five years. In 1790, Tyler briefly returned to Boston and renewed his acquaintance with Mary Palmer, daughter of Joseph and Elizabeth Palmer. In the winter of 1793, he proposed marriage to the eighteen-year-old Mary but immediately returned to Guildford, Vermont, to serve as the state’s attorney for Windham County. They were married in 1794, a bond lasting thirty-two years, and had eleven children. In 1812, Mary Tyler published Grandmother Tyler’s Book, a compendium of advice on child rearing, which went into a second edition in 1818.

In 1801, Tyler was elected to the Supreme Court of Vermont as an assistant judge at a salary of $900 a year; in 1807, he was elected chief justice at a salary of $1,000. As a circuit judge, Tyler spent ten months a year on the road. He was elected assistant judge six times and chief justice six times. In 1802, he became a trustee of the University of Vermont; in 1811, he was appointed professor of jurisprudence, a position he held until 1814. In 1812, Tyler ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate. He lost in part because he had changed his political affiliation from Federalist to Republican and the Federalists were, at that moment, in power in Vermont. This defeat signaled a change in monetary fortune for the Tylers, but Mary’s sewing and the generosity of family and neighbors sustained them. Royall Tyler continued writing into the final years of his life. He died on August 26, 1826, in Brattleboro, Vermont, after suffering from facial cancer for ten years.

In addition to legal tracts, Tyler wrote six plays, a musical drama, two long poems, a semifictional travel narrative, The Yankey in London (1809), numerous essays under the pseudonym “Spondee” with Joseph Dennie as “Colon,” the novel The Algerine Captive (1797), and its unfinished revision, The Bay Boy. Tyler is best known for The Contrast, a comedy that addresses class issues with a series of contrasting characters: Jonathan, a rustic Yankee character; Colonel Henry Manly, a virtuous though bombastic Revolutionary War veteran; Billy Dimple, an English dandy; and Maria, a sentimental heroine romantically mismatched at her father’s behest. Tyler wrote the play while in New York in March 1787; he had been sent there to solicit the state’s support against the rebellious farmers aligned with Daniel Shays. Allegedly, Tyler saw a production of Richard Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777) and was so inspired that he wrote The Contrast in less than a month. Tyler is credited with creating a memorable American type, the Yankee, whose backwoods dialect and humor became a model for other regional humorists, such as Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Thomas Bangs Thorpe, and Mark Twain. The Contrast opened on April 16, 1787, at the John Street Theatre to successful reviews and was immediately reproduced on April 18, May 2, and May 12, an unprecedented four performances in one month. The play opened in Baltimore on August 12 and in Philadelphia on December 10, where Thomas Wignell, a popular actor, read it. The Contrast was published in Philadelphia in 1790, counting among its subscribers George Washington. Although the form was adapted from English drama, Tyler infused the play with a distinctively American theme, domestic simplicity over European pretense.

Susan Clair Imbarrato
Minnesota State University Moorhead

In the Heath Anthology
The Contrast, A Comedy in Five Acts (1790)

Other Works

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EAF Authors: Royall Tyler
A substantive biography excerpted from the Cyclopaedia of American Literature.
Vermont Historical Society Library, Royall Tyler Collection
While this site primarily describes the manuscripts available in the Collection, it also offers a brief biography.

Secondary Sources

Ada Lou Carson and Herbert L. Carson, Royall Tyler, 1979

C.N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, 1986

John Evelev, "The Contrast: The Problem of Theatricality and Political and Social Crisis in Post-Revolutionary America," Early American Literature, 311, 1996: 74-98

Jeffrey H. Richards, Theatre Enough: American Culture and the Metaphor of the World Stage, 1607-1789, 1991

G. Thomas Tanselle, Royall Tyler, 1967