John Tyler: President with Two First Ladies
Letitia Christian Tyler was born on November 12, 1790, the seventh child of Robert Christian and Mary Brown Christian, of Richmond, Virginia. This was a time when Richmond, although close to Washington DC, was considered the South with different beliefs regarding the upbringing of a child.
Letitia, the daughter of a wealthy planter and owner of a plantation, believed a woman should be polite and reserved, and like the saying goes, “listen, but don’t speak.” Different from other first ladies, she spent many hours knitting and doing various chores around the plantation with her mother, and siblings.
She met John Tyler, a law student, in 1808. John was ambitious and intelligent and to everyone’s surprise he stayed around courting for many years. It is known that he was only able to kiss her hand until their wedding in 1813.
Now Mr. and Mrs. Tyler ran their own plantation in Virginia. The mother of nine children, her soul concern was the education and the welfare of her family. John served during the war of 1812 and became interested in politics, but the plantation was run by slaves. Mrs. Tyler believed a black woman slave belonged in the home and not in the fields. But that plantation was soon to be part of their past, when the Tyler family moved to Williamsburg, Virginia. During this time John Tyler was elected governor of Virginia, and continued his way to Washington DC, elected to the US Senate.
Mrs. Tyler had a long and hard life bringing up nine children and caring for the plantation in Williamsburg, and this would be where she suffered her first stroke. In 1839, she turned to her religion, and the good times in her life became a dreadful thought, she was confined to a wheelchair. She spent most of her time reading the Bible inside her bedroom.
She remained in Williamsburg, Virginia when her husband became vice president of the United States. It would be the sudden death of Pres. William Henry Harrison that brought the Tyler’s to Washington DC and the White House.
During her married life her husband struggled with the budget to entertain fellow political figures. He was known to be poor like many plantation owners who never knew how to handle cash; their asset would be there land and home. When the Tyler’s occupied the White House the country considered them not the first family, but John himself, was the accidental president. This would be the first time in our country that a president died in office and John Tyler would take up the reins. Perhaps the people of the United States were shocked by the death of Harrison, although he was old compared to John Tyler, who was healthy and only 51. As quoted Tyler’s voice, “Go you now then, Mr. Clay, to your end of the Avenue where stands the Capitol, and they are perform your duty to the country as you shall think proper. So help me God I shall do mind at this end of it as I shall think proper.”
Not only did Tyler have problems with fellow political figures but he dealt with a wife who was paralyzed and seldom showed her face at the White House. Because of this it would be his daughter-in-law who hosted dinners, cheese, receptions and other scheduled events. Tyler knew he was placed on the ticket in 1844, for one reason, and one reason only, to appeal to the south. Mrs. Tyler and the new Vice President at the time of Harrison’s inaugural, were completely ignored, no one expected him to step up to be president.
At the time John Tyler took office his wife was 49 years old, but looked much older than the president. Comments could be heard around the city that she must have been a beautiful woman in her time. Although she was ill, she still had compassion and was unselfish and thought most about her husband and children, and thankful, when her daughter-in-law, Priscilla, the wife of her son Robert, acted on her behalf.
On summer evenings the President and First lady appeared sitting beneath the South portico of the White House, listening to the Marine band; these were the few times the public would see the first lady. The people knew she was crippled, and understood why she remained out of sight, out of mind. One time she appeared in formal dress, it would be the marriage of her daughter, at the White House, an event she did not hide.
First lady, Tyler, suffered a second stroke in 1842. Still strong minded she watched as her husband became one of the most hated presidents in American history, because of his policies which brought Congress to a boiling point, even his Whig party abandoned him. His wife, following her second stroke, would die on September 10, 1842.
Although, it was recent and new to hold a funeral for the late president Harrison the country was in shock when a first lady passed away as the spouse of a sitting president, this captured the nation.
It would be the first time in our history that a president would marry after burying his first wife. His courtship with Julia Gardner was taken unkindly by some of his children. Julia was not a Southerner; born on Long Island, her father, a lawyer and her mother, Juliana MacLachlan Gardner, a rich heiress. Julia would be educated at the best private schools in the north, and Europe. She was quite opposite from the President’s first wife, a woman who loved fashion, parties, and the more people around her the better she felt. Julia was noted in the press as a beautiful woman, one who flaunted her figure and flirted with piercing eyes – no wonder why she was known to be flirtatious. Julia was only 20 when she first met President Tyler.
Pres. John Tyler met Julia in Washington when her father brought her to the Capitol. Julia caught the attention of many eligible men who eventually proposed to her; including a Supreme Court justice. The year she met the President was the same year his first wife passed. Five months later the President began giving more and more attention to the young woman, only twenty, he was nearly 54. Julia believed he was an old man, and remained cool to his advances… The president would propose to Julia three times, and each time she said no. It was the fourth time when both were on the ship, the Princeton, in the year, 1844, where her father was stricken and killed by stray cannons. It was reported to the press that Julia fell into the arms of the president, and fainted.
The president married Julia Gardiner in June of 1844, she was 24 years old. One of his daughters would never forgive him; she too, 24 years old.
Things became merrier at the White House with parties, dinners, guests from all over the world and Julia had fun spending far too much money, when she refurbish rooms and re-decorated the White House. She never thought where the money came from, but when approached, she decided to use her own. She also traveled with 12 women who cared for her needs, including her clothing, where she slept or entertained. The country did not pay the salary for her private escorts.
Julia left the White House in 1845, but first she held the biggest party in history, inviting over 3000 guests to the White House; it was on February 18, 1845, and word spread the First Lady was, in our terms, drunk, drinking one glass of champagne after another.
Now, no longer had the first lady who occupied the White House, Tyler brought his young wife and their children, (which would total 15 in all, at the President’s death) to Sherwood Forest estate, Virginia, and John Tyler had his last child at 70 years old. Julia was born a northerner yet agreed to live in Virginia.
Julia continued to spend the money without knowing what a plantation owner earned. Now money was becoming an issue in her life. The issue continued following the death of her husband during the month of January, 1862. Sherwood Forest began to deteriorate, so she moved her family to her mother’s home on Staten Island. She had to fight for the house with her own brother, but she won. She never sold the Sherwood Forest estate, and visited there quite often when playing the southern belle, and continued to act as a socialite in Washington, and on Long Island.
It would take the country by surprise when Julia Gardner Tyler died from a stroke, in 1889. The comments from those on Long Island went back to her younger years when she agreed to pose for a company; hand bills were passed out by Bogert and Macamly’s, a dry goods store. During those years a girl who participated in advertising was close to prostitution, the people remembered why her family sent her to Europe to gain the prominence they expected from an aristocrat from Long Island.
One thing she will be remembered for are the “Julia waltzes,” she loved music and was a legendary dancer. And, it would be Julia who began the tradition for the Marine band to play “hail to the chief” when a president arrived at social functions.
An odd thing about Julia that the public dismissed was her sixth sense. She reported she had a dream in 1862 concerning the president who became mortally ill. Days later, after a man in good health, became ill and soon died. Julia believed she could see the future through dreams, and it was reported that she hosted a séance when the table where four people sat, levitated.
There is no doubt that those few years John Tyler was president or as they said, the accidental president, things were in the air called gossip. John certainly brought excitement to the people of America.
(Follow as we look into the life of Sarah Childress Polk, the first lady and wife of Pres. James K Polk)