With John Tyler known as the “accidental president” due to the death of President William Henry Harrison, his time in the White House was one of many firsts. He was the first vice president to take on the role of president, while his first wife, Letitia, was the first First Lady to die in the White House and his second wife, Julia, was the youngest First Lady at the time (surpassed only by Francis Cleveland). These two women could not be more different, and learning more about them gives you great insight into the expectations of women in society, especially in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Each month, I’ll detail the life of the first lady and their legacy. Then I’ll share what I learned while studying them, along with ways you can travel in their footsteps through historical sites and museums. I’ll also share books, podcasts, TV shows, and websites where you can learn even more about that first lady. Read all of the way through the blog post or click on the links below to go straight to those sections.
- Legacy of the Tyler Women
- My Time with the Tyler Women
- Travels with the Tyler Women
- To Learn More
Letitia Christian Tyler
Mrs. John Tyler, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. , 1830. [Between ? and 1840?] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014648331/.
Letitia Christian was born November 12, 1790 at her parents’ plantation, Cedar Grove, in New Kent County, Virginia (also the home county of Martha Washington). She was the youngest of six daughters of Mary and Robert Christian, a wealthy planter. She had a typical childhood with an informal education on how to manage a household and raise a family. She grew into a gracious young woman with fair skin, dark hair, and brown eyes.
When she was in her late teens or early twenties, she met John Tyler from neighboring Charles City County at a party. He was friends with her brother at the College of William and Mary and was already an established attorney and member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He fell in love with her quiet shyness and refinement. They began courting but kept things very chaste; he only allowed himself to kiss her hand – once! – before marriage!
John and Letitia married on March 29, 1813, and they moved to Mons Sacer, a small farm next door to his childhood home of Greenway (still standing on today’s Historic Route 5 – John Tyler Highway). Their first child, Mary, was born in 1815 with seven additional children to follow in the next fifteen years. Sadly, they lost one child in infancy, but the other seven children lived to adulthood.
These many pregnancies were difficult and took a toll on Letitia’s health. She was unable to travel and was alone at home for most of their marriage as John served in Washington as a congressman and senator. Politics consumed him, keeping him away for almost half of every year. She pleaded with him, saying “get out of politics, come home, stay out of it. I want you here,” but he replied, “nothing but a sense of duty can keep me from you.” Family and friends visited Letitia but nothing could make up for the absence of a husband and father.
She oversaw the day-to-day workings of a busy farm, including managing nearly thirty enslaved workers and dealing with the many children. With John’s absence and political duties, the farm was always on the brink of solvency, especially as their family continued to grow. Her strong religious faith was her comfort during these trying times.
In December of 1825, Letitia and the children moved with John to Richmond where he served as the governor, living at the executive mansion still in use today. Letitia wasn’t given much money to entertain and resorted to serving only ham, bread, and whiskey in hopes of garnering additional funds from the legislators. It didn’t work.
After leaving Richmond in 1827, they moved to John’s family home of Greenway, but he almost immediately left to serve in the US Senate. Letitia visited John once in Washington in December of 1828, but only stayed for four months before her health necessitated a trip back home.
Letitia’s oldest daughter, Mary, helped her mother with salt baths to ease her pain from severe migraines (possibly linked to undiagnosed high blood pressure). Letitia was grateful when John came home from Washington for good in 1836 although she learned to temper her happiness since society saw it as unbecoming a lady. She was described as having an “acute nervous organization and sensitive temperament” with hysteria, which we now believe to be depression.
John sold Greenway and moved his family east to Gloucester Place and then again to Williamsburg. Their oldest son’s wife, Patricia, a former actress, was Letitia’s constant companion and sat with her during many illnesses. In 1839, Letitia suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and with speech difficulties.
John was added to the presidential ticket in the election of 1840 as vice president, running with another Charles City County native William Henry Harrison. Even though they won, it was expected that the vice president could remain at home, much to the relief of the ailing Letitia. On April 4, 1841, however, the family awoke to the news that President Harrison had died, only one month into his presidency. John immediately went to Washington and Letitia and the children joined him shortly thereafter.
With Letitia’s poor health, she couldn’t attend to the hostessing duties so those fell to Patricia. While Patricia entertained downstairs, frail Letitia stayed upstairs at the White House in a wheelchair, reading her Bible. She only came downstairs once to see her daughter married.
Patricia was a gracious and popular hostess who saw the White House as the ultimate stage. She used her charm and wit to win over even the most disagreeable guests, including the grumpy John Qunicy Adams. She was an asset to President Tyler’s difficult time in office and received helpful advice from former First Lady Dolley Madison. She had elegant and dignified parties and even entertained over 3,000 people at a party to honor Washington Irving and Charles Dickens in March of 1842. She was the first acting hostess to give birth in the White House and also the first professional actress to serve (joined by Nancy Reagan in 1981!).
On September 10, 1842, Letitia died from a second stroke, and the family had a small service at the White House before burying Letitia at her childhood family home at Cedar Ridge. Her obituary stated that she was “loving and confiding to her husband, gentle and affectionate to her children, kind and charitable to the needy and afflicted.”
President Tyler and his entire family were plunged into deep mourning. But for President Tyler, things would soon look up.
Julia Gardiner Tyler
Julia Gardiner was born on May 4, 1820 on Gardiner’s island in East Hampton, New York to David and Juliana Gardiner. Her father was part of the rich Gardiner family who had owned the island since the king’s land grant in the mid-17th century (the family still owns it today!).
Julia grew up in East Hampton and was educated at New York City’s most prestigious female academy. She was beautiful, vivacious, and the toast of New York with many beaux. She became embroiled in a scandal when she allowed her likeness to be used by a store in an advertisement (click here to see). Her nickname, the Rose of New York, was used in the ad and inspired a poem by an ardent admirer. Her parents quickly took her and her sister to Europe to escape the scandal.
They spent a year abroad and were presented to King Louis Philippe in France and to the pope, Julia’s beauty and charm causing men to swoon wherever they went. She was quite adventurous, venturing into the smoking crater on Mount Vesuvius while nearly fainting from fear! After conquering Europe, Julia’s father brought his daughters to Washington where Julia soon became the object of every man’s affection. Many congressmen and a Supreme Court Justice counted themselves among her suitors. She came to the White House for parties and met President Tyler on January 20, 1842 while Letitia was still alive. She impressed him so much that other guests “looked and listened in perfect amazement.”
The Gardiner family came back to Washington for the 1842 winter season, and Julia quickly caught the president’s eye even though he was a new widower thirty years her senior. With Letitia gone, he now became infatuated with Julia, chasing her around the White House to get a kiss (on the hand) and proposing many times. He proposed for the first time at Washington’s birthday ball in February 1843 where Julia wore a white ball gown with a crimson Greek cap with a tassel. She told him “no, no, no” so emphatically, shaking her head back and forth, that the tassel hit the President in the face! He told his daughter “if I get married at all it will be to JG or no one.”
Julia’s family came back to Washington in February of 1844, and Julia still was not ready to get married. On February 28, Julia and her father were guests on board the USS Princeton along with President Tyler and much of his cabinet and other dignitaries, including Dolley Madison. A large gun malfunctioned as they neared Mount Vernon on the Potomac, exploding on deck and killing many people including Julia’s father. Julia and President Tyler were below deck, and upon hearing of her father’s death, she fainted. She awoke in the president’s arms as he carried her off the boat, at first struggling but then she said, “I looked in his eyes and realized the President loved me dearly.”
After this, Julia felt differently about the president and accepted his proposal. They married in a surprise, intimate wedding on June 26, 1844 at the Episocpal Church of the Ascension in New York City. Julia was “robed simply in white, with a gauze veil depending from a circlet of white flowers wreathed in her hair.” The newlyweds took a cruise around the New York harbor (where ironically the Princeton was one of the boats to give them a thundering salute!) and then a train to Philadelphia for their wedding night. Two days later a wedding reception was held in the Blue Room of the White House, and they spent their honeymoon in the presidential retreat at Fort Monroe.
As the first true First Lady since Louisa Adams 15 years earlier, Julia immediately set out to improve the image of the White House, telling her mother “I have commenced my auspicious reign and am in quiet possession of the President Mansion.” Convinced that she would do something that would be the “talk of Washington,” she used her own money to refurbish the White House and entertain lavishly. She created a more formal European-style court at her receptions, including standing on a dais with young ladies attending her in white dresses, called the “Vestal Virgins.” As the youngest First Lady at that time, she brought dancing back to the White House, including the scandalous waltz (called “The Julia Waltzes” in her honor), and introduced the polka. Ever conscious of her image, Julia even cultivated a relationship with a reporter from the New York Herald, ensuring good press.
While First Lady for less than a year, Julia made a huge impact on the Washington social scene and political world. She was involved in influencing the vote to annex Texas, attending the debate at the Capitol and using her charm to sway votes in favor of the joint resolution. When President Tyler signed the bill, he gave the gold pen to Julia who had it made into a necklace (some say she was buried in it!).
As her time in the White House came to a close, she gave a going away bash fit for a queen. Over 3,000 people attended the last party where “wine and champagne flowed like water.” One biographer said that she would have no real rival as First Lady until Jaqueline Kennedy 116 years later.
John and Julia left the White House in March of 1845 and retired home to his new plantation on the James River called Sherwood Forest. Despite their age difference, Julia seemed to love John very much, and they were quite affectionate with each other. After leaving the highest office in the land, John was free to be a more present and devoted husband than he was to Letitia. They soon began their family with the birth of their first child in 1846 followed quickly by six additional children. When added to his children from his marriage, John had 15 in total, the most of any president.
John’s adult children were split in their affections toward their new stepmother. The sons accepted her right away, but the girls had a more difficult time, especially since Julia was younger than several of the siblings. One daughter, also named Letitia, never liked Julia and was a thorn in her side for the rest of her life. This daughter’s husband, James Semple, was infatuated with Julia and at least one book has speculated on the true nature of their relationship after the Civil War.
John was besotted with his pretty young wife and comforted her bad dreams, brought her wildflowers, nursed her when she became sick, and brought her small presents including an Italian greyhound. They frequently visited neighbors, unlike Letitia’s isolation during their years together. He was a completely different husband to Julia, taking her to the hot springs at the Greenbrier and holidays at Fort Monroe. John was sickly many of these years, and Julia tended to him with her home remedies, including mercury pills.
John gave Julia free rein to renovate Sherwood Forest while he tended to the farm, managed the enslaved population (now up to 60-70), and served as the Charles City County roads commissioner. A newspaper erroneously reported that John and Julia were having marital problems but it was his son, John Tyler, Jr., who was having issues. Several of her step-children passed away in these years along with Julia’s beloved sister.
As the slavery issue began to push the country to the brink of war, John was named a peace commissioner to avert the upcoming civil war. Julia and the younger children went with John to Washington in February of 1861, and she enjoyed being the center of attention in the capital one last time. The peace conference was unsuccessful, but Julia had a great time. John could not agree to the provisions of peace with his pro-slavery opinions, so he came home firmly on the side of secession. When war broke out just two months later, he sided with his home state and the Confederacy, turning his back on the country he formerly led. He was elected to serve in the Confederate Congress.
When he went to Richmond to be installed in the Confederate Congress in January of 1862, Julia had a dream of him looking pale and sick, so she rushed there with their young daughter earlier than planned. John and Julia were at the Exchange Hotel when he became violently ill, dying with her at his side. He laid in state at the Capitol and the service was conducted at St. Paul’s Church, with the burial at Hollywood Cemetery. He is the only US president to be buried under a different flag.
Julia was now a widow at the age of 41. She went back to Sherwood Forest as the war raged nearby and eventually took the children to her mother’s house on Staten Island in New York for safety in November of 1862. She and the two youngest children came back to Sherwood Forest in early 1863. When she wanted to go back the next year, she refused to take the loyalty oath to the Union needed to leave, so she took a more risky option. She was able to obtain passage on a blockade runner to Bermuda where she then took another ship to New York, remaining there the rest of the war. Even being in the North and living in the same home as her staunch Unionist brother didn’t cause Julia to temper her Confederate leanings, with her and her mother becoming involved in the Copperhead groups of New York. Her two oldest boys, Gardie and Alex, left the safety of college and New York respectively and enlisted in the Confederate Army, being part of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. After President Lincoln’s assassination, a mob descended on Julia’s house on Staten Island, demanding she give up a Confederate flag they suspected her having.
After the war, Julia still retained possession of Sherwood Forest, but it had been plundered by the Union Army so she stayed in New York. She left New York and moved to Washington in 1872 to fight for a pension as the “Mrs. Ex-presidentress,” and she got it in 1881. Reviled in the North for her Confederate ties, she was revered in the South. She moved back to Virginia and presided over the restoration of Sherwood Forest. She then converted to Catholicism and moved to Richmond, dying in the same hotel as her husband on July 10, 1889 of a stroke. Both of John Tyler’s wives and John Tyler himself died of a stroke.
Legacy of the Tyler Women
Letitia Tyler didn’t leave much of a legacy to study. With her quiet nature and the fact that almost none of her letters survived, her story is a sad one seemingly lost to history. It’s only through her children that we know much about her at all. She seems like a loving, devoted wife and mother who just wanted to have one thing: her family intact. Unfortunately, John’s political ambition was at war with her desires which possibly contributed to her poor physical and mental health. She left a legacy through her many children, but even that was to be tarnished by the Civil War and their poor choices.
Julia Tyler, however, leaves a completely opposite legacy than Letitia. She is thought to be one of the most influential First Ladies of the 19th century and is always mentioned in discussions of First Ladies that were successful in “parlor politics”.” Along with Dolley, Julia is a shining example of using her charm and social skills to influence politics.
However, her legacy is tarnished by her own actions during the Civil War. While she was a Northerner by birth, the Gardiner family had enslaved workers when she was born, and she wholeheartedly endorsed the institution. In 1853, she wrote a public opinion piece in response to a British abolitionist’s attack on the institution of slavery, defending the way of life and basically telling the British to mind their own business. Her article was received well by those with Southern sympathies, but today, it is a huge stain on her legacy.
My Time with the Tyler Women
The more I read about Letitia Tyler, the more sympathy I had for her. She seems like the ultimate “giving tree” who gives and gives without ever filling her tank, only to be depleted and cast aside. While I don’t doubt that her husband loved her, he didn’t seem to care about what was best for her. He left her alone for months at a time with too many children and not enough money when her body and mind just couldn’t take it. And then to think she had to temper her happiness when he did come home because it wasn’t proper just infuriates me! Letitia deserved better, however I do believe she was as happy as she could be since this was all a woman was supposed to accept at the time. I can imagine her singing like Eliza Hamilton from Hamilton: The Musical:
We don’t need a legacy, We don’t need money…Let this moment be the first chapter: Where you decide to stay, And I could be enough, And we could be enough, That would be enough.
I knew about Julia before my reading this month and had always been captivated by her story. Her White House portrait is one of my favorites, and I love her vivaciousness and amazing life story. It seems like the stuff of an epic novel – a Scarlett O”Hara-like story with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows during my favorite time period in history to study. However, after learning more about Letitia and how different John Tyler was in the marriages, I had a different take on Julia. She seems a little young and spoiled, at least at the beginning of their marriage. Much like Scarlett, she grows into her womanhood and rises to the challenges presented from her husband’s death to the threat of war, but it left me a little less enamored of Julia and sadder for Letitia.
During my reading, I kept coming back to Julia’s unsettling history during the Civil War. It’s hard for us today to grasp her belief and defense in the system of slavery. Even though she moved to the safety of the North, she didn’t give up fighting for the South, and her work after the war was used in the “Lost Cause” narrative. It’s a part of her legacy that should be studied along with her grand successes in the White House.
Travels with the Tyler Women
Both Letitia and Julia spent many years in Charles City County, Virginia.
Sherwood Forest, Charles City (see my updated review here) – This home/museum is the best place to learn about John, Letitia, and Julia. John bought the plantation in 1842, and he and Julia spent many happy years here. It remains in the family’s hands with John and Julia’s grandson and great-grandson still living here. Amazing!
Cedar Grove, Providence Forge – This is Letitia’s childhood home site and burial place. She is interred in the Cedar Grove Cemetery (open to the public off Route 106) along with her daughters Mary, Anne, and Letitia. The nearby highway marker is missing.
Greenway Plantation, Charles City – Located on John Tyler Memorial Highway just a few miles west of Sherwood Forest, this is the childhood home of President Tyler and also the home where he lived with Letitia and their children for a time. It is privately owned and not open for tours.
Nicholas-Tyler House, Williamsburg – This is a reconstruction of the home where Letitia and John were living when he got the news of President Harrison’s death. Located on the corner of East Francis and South England Streets, it’s now a colonial guest home that you can actually stay in during a visit to Colonial Williamsburg!
Richmond – Julia lived in Richmond at the end of her life in a home at the corner of East Grace and 8th Streets near the State Capitol. The Catholic church she attended and which hosted her funeral, St. Peter’s, is also located here. She and John are buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery in President’s Circle. Letitia also lived with John in Richmond during his governorship at the Virginia Executive Mansion.
Fort Monroe – This fort is near the place where John and Julia honeymooned in July of 1844. During the Civil War, it became known as “Freedom’s Fortress” where enslaved people came to gain their freedom. Their home, Villa Margaret, was located nearby and occupied by the Union.
New York City – Julia spent many years here both as a girl and then as an escape during the Civil War.
- Episcopal Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue at Tenth Street is where John and Julia married and is open to the public.
- The Gardiner-Tyler home at 27 Tyler Avenue on Staten Island is where Julia lived with her mother and children during the war (see this NY Times article about the house in 1999). It is a private home not open to the public.
The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs – John took both Letitia and Julia to the springs here, staying with Julia in a Baltimore Row house. You can visit the hotel’s Presidents’ cottage to learn more about all of the presidents and first ladies who have visited.
To Learn More
Books to Read
All links are Amazon affiliate links. You can also purchase the books through my affiliate link to Bookshop.org which supports independent bookstores.
President without a Party: The Life of John Tyler by Christopher J. Leahy
This extensive biography of John Tyler also contained a wealth of knowledge about Letitia and Julia. It is long but very readable (the political machinations are also skimmable if they aren’t of interest).
And Tyler Too by Robert Seager II
Best purchased through Sherwood Forest, this biography of John and Julia from 1963 is a bit dated in language but contains many details about Julia’s own family. They were fascinating!
John Tyler, the Accidental President by Edward P. Crapol
Another lengthy biography of John Tyler with some details of his wives.
Explosion on the Potomac: The 1844 Calamity Aboard the USS Princeton by Kerry Walters
All about the disaster that brought John and Julia together.
The Rebel and the Rose: James A. Semple, Julia Gardiner Tyler, and the Lost Confederate Gold by Wesley Millett and Gerald White
I read this narrative nonfiction that posits a theory that James Semple (John Tyler’s son-in-law) took the Confederate gold and gave it to Julia Gardiner Tyler after the war. Since she was destitute until the government pension, I don’t see how this could be true but at least the book provides lots of great details about the end of the Civil War.
How We Got Here Season 3, Episode 3: May 4-10 (time stamp 19:17)
Plodding Through the Presidents: The Peacemaker and the Cradlerobber (content warning – language)
C-SPAN First Ladies: Influence and Image
C-SPAN American Presidents show about John Tyler (lots of great pictures and a look inside Sherwood Forest)
White House Historical Association
- Letitia Tyler
- Priscilla Tyler
- Julia Tyler
- The Tyler White House Christmas ornament is probably my favorite one of all! Julia’s beauty and elegance is displayed for all to see in her famous White House portrait. You can purchase it here.
C-SPAN First Ladies: Influence and Image
John Tyler may have been the accidental president, but Julia’s influence on the role of First Lady was no accident. She knew how to make a lasting impression on history, and while Letitia was overshadowed by Julia, she should still be studied. I enjoyed learning about these two very different women this month!