Tyler, Julia Gardiner (1820–1889)
Tyler, Julia Gardiner (1820–1889)
American first lady (1844–45) who brought an air of royalty to the White House, provided outspoken support for her husband's Confederate views, and lobbied for pensions for presidential widows. Born on May 4, 1820, in Gardiner Island, New York; died on July 10, 1889, in Richmond, Virginia; third of four children of David Gardiner (a lawyer and state senator in New York) and Juliana (McLachlen) Gardiner (a daughter of a wealthy Scottish brewer of New York City); attended Chagaray Institute in New York City; became second wife of John Tyler (president of the United States), on June 26, 1844, in New York City; children: David Gardiner Tyler (b. 1846); John Alexander Tyler (b. 1848); Julia Gardiner Tyler (b. 1849); Lachlan Tyler (b. 1851); Lyon Gardiner Tyler (b. 1853, who became president of the College of William and Mary in Virginia); Robert Fitzwalter Tyler (b. 1856); Pearl Tyler (b. 1860).
The news that President John Tyler had married Julia Gardiner, "The Rose of Long Island," must have kept tongues wagging for days. The ceremony, held in New York City instead of Washington, had been kept a secret. The groom, at age 54, actually had children older than his 24-year-old bride. Finally, Julia, unlike John Tyler's dear first wife Letitia Tyler , would certainly not be content to slip into the background of her husband's life.
Known for her raven hair, her hourglass figure, and a string of lovesick suitors, Julia Gardiner was born in 1820, the daughter of a prominent and wealthy New York family. Growing up in Long Island society, she was educated at the prestigious Chagaray Institute in New York City. A trend setter, even as a debutante, she created a fashion craze by wearing a diamond on her forehead held in place by a gold chain. At 19, she humiliated her conservative family by lending her likeness to a department store advertisement, an act which evidently resulted in a hastily arranged tour of Europe.
Julia's first visit to the capital during the winter social season of 1842–43 brought a flurry of marriage proposals, including one from John Tyler, a recent widower. During a return visit the following year, Julia and her family were invited with a number of other notable Washingtonians to sail on a test run of the first propeller-driven
warship, the USS Princeton. The accidental misfiring of the ship's main gun on the upper deck resulted in the deaths of six men, including the secretary of state and Julia's father David. A stricken Julia fainted and was carried off the ship by the president, who provided fatherly comfort and guidance during the difficult weeks that followed. Romance blossomed, although many believe it was helped along by Julia's determination to marry into wealth and power. After the wedding on June 26, 1844, John Tyler's sons eagerly accepted Julia into the family fold. One, Robert, even served as best man. The president's daughters—Mary Tyler (b. 1815); Letitia Tyler Semple (b. 1821); Elizabeth Tyler (b. 1823); and Alice Tyler (b. 1827)—were less magnanimous.
Though technically still in mourning for her father, Julia filled her eight months as first lady with a flurry of social activities. She also hired a New York press agent, to insure favorable publicity. In a letter home, she wrote: "I have commenced my auspicious reign and am in quiet possession of the Presidential Mansion." Washington society could not help but be dazzled by the youthful new inhabitant of the White House, who entertained lavishly in the European court tradition. Greeting guests on a platform, flanked by young girls dressed in white, "Her Serene Loveliness," as one wag called her, wore a crownlike arrangement of diamonds and plumes in her hair.
If Julia reveled in her own popularity, she was also her husband's staunchest ally, lobbying openly for the annexation of Texas, which was enacted before the end of John Tyler's term in 1845. She would wear the gold pen with which he signed the Annexation Bill as a pendant. She is also reported to have taught the Marine band to play "Hail to the Chief" whenever her husband entered a room for official functions, and she referred to him as "the president" until the day he died.
At the end of his term, the couple moved to John Tyler's vast Virginia plantation, Sherwood Forest, and raised a second family. Julia had seven children—five sons and two daughters—the last of whom was born when her husband was over 70 years of age. (In all, John Tyler had 16 children.) He died of a heart attack in 1862, while attending a session of the Confederate Congress in Richmond. Although he was hailed by the Confederacy as a hero, the federal government did not acknowledge John Tyler's death, and Julia suffered a prolonged period of economic hardship. When the Tyler plantation was no longer safe from the Union army, Julia fled with her children to the Gardiner home in New York. She continued to support the Confederate causes of states' rights and the institution of slavery, which alienated some of her family beyond reconciliation.
After the war, Julia divided her time between New York and Sherwood Forest, finally managing to restore the ravaged plantation, pay off her debts, and educate her children. In the late 1870s, she took up residence in Washington, where she lobbied for federal pensions for widows. In December 1880, Congress voted her $1,200 a year. After James A. Garfield's assassination the following year, all presidents' widows were granted $5,000 a year, allowing Julia to live out her final years in style in Richmond. She died there in 1889, at age 69, and was buried beside her husband at Hollywood Cemetery.
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Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts