Julia Gardiner Tyler: First Lady of the United States
The tenth president of the United States, John Tyler, lost his first wife just a year into his presidency in 1842. Married for nearly thirty years, the couple had nine children together. At age fifty-one, Letitia Tyler died of a massive stroke leaving John with a brood of children to attend to as well as run the country. The family was devastated with the loss of the heart and soul of the family.
David Gardiner, one of the wealthiest men in New York State, had become acquainted with President Tyler, who invited the family to the White House for a dinner party. The fifty-two-year-old president immediately noticed David’s twenty-two-year-old daughter, Julia. The “Rose of Long Island,” as she was known, was a beautiful young women, well educated, and trained in the social graces. She was the talk of Washington’s social scene and had many men, young and old, single and married, enamored with her. Apparently, President Tyler fell hard for the young beauty and proposed marriage after only knowing her for two weeks—“no, no, no!” was her response.
John Tyler was persistent if nothing else. In February of 1844 he proposed again, and once again she rejected the much older man’s proposal. Fate would intervene in their lives in a big way and thrust the May-September couple together. The president invited the Gardiner family to join him along with a cast of dignitaries for a boat trip on the Potomac aboard the U.S.S. Princeton. The ship was the pride of the U.S. Navy, one of the first steam ships to be driven by screw propellers. For the entertainment of his distinguished guests, Captain R.P. Stock treated the passengers to a demonstration of the steamships powerful new cannon named “the Peacemaker.” The massive cannon was capable of hurling a 225-pound shot a distance of three miles. The big gun misfired, exploded, and killed several on board. Among the victims were two of Tyler’s cabinet members and Julia’s father. So upset with this horrific event, Julia fainted and was carried off the ship by Tyler. During her recovery in Washington, John and Julia bonded; perhaps Tyler fulfilled some missing fatherly figure role for Julia, and they became secretly engaged.
After a quiet courtship out of the public eye, John and Julia were married in a private ceremony at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue in New York City on June 26, 1844. Along with her beauty, Julia brought to the marriage a handsome fortune—a welcome relief for Tyler, who was always short on money. When the press caught wind that the president had married a woman thirty years his junior, criticism began to fly. Tyler held the notoriety of being the first president to come into the office from the vice presidency upon the death of president William Henry Harrison just a month after taking office, and now he was the first president to be married while in office. The American public was both curious and a bit apprehensive about the event. Critics contended that the marriage had come too quickly after the death of Tyler’s first wife, Letitia. Tyler rebutted, stating he was still in his “prime” and not too old to remarry such a young women. Julia’s mother had also attempted to slow down the courtship, wanting to give her daughter time to grieve her father’s death and determine if she really loved Tyler. The marriage didn’t sit well with some of Tyler’s daughters; Julia was five years younger than John’s eldest daughter. Over time, most of the Tyler children would come to terms with their young stepmother, however.
Julia Gardiner was born on May 4, 1820, to the prominent Long Island couple Catherine and David Gardiner. Her father was a wealthy lawyer and state senator. The family was counted among the East Hampton elite and well known in the state. The Gardiners owned a large home on their private island in Long Island Sound. The island had been in the family since 1639, when Lion (or Lyon) Gardiner purchased it from the Algonquin tribe. The thirty-three hundred acre island is located off the eastern tip of Long Island. Julia was educated at home until the age of sixteen, then she was sent to New York City to attend Madame Chagaray’s, a prestigious finishing school. While at Madame Chagaray’s, Julia studied French literature, music, math, history, and the social graces. Those who knew her described her as beautiful, bold, and flirtatious. Mrs. Gardiner wanted to raise her daughters to be aware of their privileged position and marry into a family of equal status.
At age fifteen, Julia had her official social debut and four years later she accompanied her parents on a tour of England and France—where she caught the attention of many young eligible suitors. In 1842, Julia’s parents took her to Washington, D.C., where they made social calls hoping to find a suitably wealthy and powerful beau for her. It was during this visit that she met the recently widowed president John Tyler. Her visit to the capitol city must have sparked within her what would become her lifelong fascination with politics.
First Lady of the United States
Once in the White House, Julia wasted no time lining up an ambitious social calendar for the president. Whereas Tyler’s first wife had been quiet and demure, rarely seen at social functions, Julia was ambitious and wanted to host the best social events ever held at the White House. The public and the press were fascinated with this new, young, and vivacious first lady. Her social adroitness and training paid off, as she was able to charm, on behalf of her husband, even the most difficult congressman.
Julia inherited a White House in desperate need of repair. She set about making improvements to the executive mansion, importing French furniture and wine, often at Tyler’s expense. She used a portion of her personal wealth to purchase an elaborate wardrobe and became a fashion leader in the social circles of Washington’s power brokers. Following the lead of the royal courts of Europe, Julia would seat herself on a raised platform to receive her guests at parties. Her 1845 New Year’s Day reception attracted over two thousand quests. No queen would be complete without an entourage, and Julia’s consisted of her sister Margaret and her cousins along with her pet Italian greyhound.
Before Julia came into the White House, the Tylers had opposed music and dance on moral grounds; this quickly changed. Julia introduced dancing at White House functions, especially waltzes, which were considered a bit risqué at the time. Julia’s agenda was also political as she used the events to build support for her husband’s policies and to celebrate his accomplishments. She gave her husband political advice as well. She insisted on having the Marine band play “Hail to the Chief” when he entered a room or appeared in public. Though her “reign” as first lady only lasted eight months, Julia left her mark on Washington and was widely admired for her short term as first lady.
After the White House
John Tyler was not a popular president and only lasted one term. The Tylers retired to his 1600 acre plantation named “Sherwood Forest” in Virginia and raised seven children. There Julia helped her husband manage their plantation with sixty or seventy slaves. Julia took up the task of renovating the mansion at Sherwood Forest, redecorating the boat, and refurbishing their carriage. She hosted impressive parties at Sherwood Forest and at their home in Hampton, New York, during the summer months. The Tylers were both musically inclined, and sometimes in the evenings, he would play his violin while she sang and strummed her guitar. She remained very politically aware and as the hostilities escalated between the North and South she became a leading spokesperson for states’ rights and slavery.
Julia’s pro-slavery stance came into full view when in 1853 the Duchess of Sutherland and several other British ladies appealed to the women of the South to take the lead and put an end to slavery. Mrs. Tyler composed a lengthy response to the English ladies defending slavery and sent her response to the New York Herald and the Richmond Inquirer. In her open letter she insisted slave-owners were kindly and that their slaves lived better lives than British industrial workers. She reminded the Duchess and her friends to mind their own business and stay out of America’s domestic issues. “We are content to leave England in the enjoyment of her peculiar institutions,” she stated, “and we must insist upon the right to regulate ours without her aide.”
The Civil War
Though neither Tyler wanted the war between the North and the South, on the eve the Civil War, she told her New York mother she was “utterly ashamed of the state in which I was born, and its people.” When open hostilities broke out, she declared: “The hand of providence should assist this holy Southern Cause.” Julia and her husband attended the unproductive Peace Conference in Washington in the spring of 1861. She was also with him in Richmond where he attended meetings of the Provisional Congress of the Confederacy. The ex-president’s health was continuing to fail and he died of a stroke at seventy-two in January 1862. The death of her husband devastated Julia and she would never fully recover from the loss.
As the Civil War escalated, her Virginia home was not safe. She made plans to move her family to her mother’s home in Staten Island, New York. In order for her to leave the blockaded southern port it was required that passengers sign an oath of allegiance to the Union. She refused, and the trip was called off. To get around the blockade, she arranged for her family to sail from North Carolina to Bermuda and then to be illegally smuggled into New York. Once in New York, the captain of the ship was arrested, circumventing the blockade. She lobbied unsuccessfully to have him pardoned. Even after she returned to New York to live in 1864 she continued to support the rebel cause—she bought Confederate bonds, distributed anti-Lincoln pamphlets, and sent money and clothes to Confederate prisoners of war.
Immediately after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, three local ruffians broke into Julia’s home in Castleton Hill and demanded that she give up her rebel flag. She refused and the three pushed their way in, ripped the flag from the parlor wall, then made a hasty retreat leaving a trail of toppled furniture in their wake. Two days later an anonymous letter appeared in the New York Herald defending the invaders’ actions, writing, “Secession, open or secret, will not be tolerated here…You are aware that we are blest with having as a resident among us, Mrs. Tyler, widow of the deceased rebel ex-President John Tyler. She seems to be successful in passing the lines of our army, and of returning at her pleasure, and with her two eldest sons in the rebel army would seem to be a privileged person.”
After the war, Julia returned to Richmond to live and became a Roman Catholic. Her support of the Confederacy had put her at odds with her brother, which led to disagreements over the family inheritance. As her money began to dwindle, she petitioned Congress for a pension and began to receive a small presidential widow’s pension to provide for her needs. She died of a stroke on July 10, 1889, at sixty-nine, in the same hotel where her husband had died nearly three decades before. She was buried in the president’s section of the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond next to her husband.
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“When New York Saw a Presidential Wedding; John Tyler's Romance with Miss Julia Gardiner Culminated in Their Marriage at the Church of the Ascension in this City Seventy-One Years Ago.” New York Times. Oct. 17, 1915.