The darling of the capital, Julia Gardiner Tyler was the second wife of the tenth President, John Tyler. She became First Lady from 1844 to 1845 after their secret engagement and wedding.
“I grieve my love a belle should be,” sighed one of Julia Gardiner’s innumerable admirers in 1840; at the age of 20 she was already famous as the “Rose of Long Island.”
Daughter of Juliana McLachlan and David Gardiner, descendant of prominent and wealthy New York families, Julia was trained from earliest childhood for a life in society; she made her debut at 15. A European tour with her family gave her new glimpses of social splendors. Late in 1842 the Gardiners went to Washington for the winter social season, and Julia became the undisputed darling of the capital. Her beauty and her practiced charm attracted the most eminent men in the city, among them President Tyler, a widower since September.
Tragedy brought his courtship poignant success the next winter. Julia, her sister Margaret, and her father joined a Presidential excursion on the new steam frigate Princeton; and David Gardiner lost his life in the explosion of a huge naval gun. Tyler comforted Julia in her grief and won her consent to a secret engagement.
The first President to marry in office took his vows in New York on June 26, 1844. The news was then broken to the American people, who greeted it with keen interest, much publicity, and some criticism about the couple’s difference in age: 30 years.
As young Mrs. Tyler said herself, she “reigned” as First Lady for the last eight months of her husband’s term. Wearing white satin or black lace to obey the conventions of mourning, she presided with vivacity and animation at a series of parties. She enjoyed her position immensely, and filled it with grace. For receptions she revived the formality of the Van Buren administration; she welcomed guests with plumes in her hair, attended by maids of honor dressed in white. She once declared, with truth: “Nothing appears to delight the President more than…to hear people sing my praises.”
The Tylers’ happiness was unshaken when they retired to their home at Sherwood Forest in Virginia. There Julia bore five of her seven children; and she acted as mistress of the plantation until the Civil War. As such, she defended both states’ rights and the institution of slavery. She championed the political views of her husband, who remained for her “the President” until the end of his life.
His death in 1862 came as a severe blow to her. In a poem composed for his sixty-second birthday she had assured him that “what e’er changes time may bring, I’ll love thee as thou art!”
Even as a refugee in New York, she devoted herself to volunteer work for the Confederacy. Its defeat found her impoverished. Not until 1958 would federal law provide automatic pensions for Presidential widows; but Congress in 1870 voted a pension for Mary Lincoln, and Julia Tyler used this precedent in seeking help. In December 1880 Congress voted her $1,200 a year — and after Garfield’s assassination it passed bills to grant uniform amounts of $5,000 annually to Mrs. Garfield, Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Polk, and Mrs. Tyler. Living out her last years comfortably in Richmond, Julia died there in 1889 and was buried there at her husband’s side.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Julia Gardiner Tyler’s spouse, John Tyler.