On this day in 1820, future First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler was born. She married the President in a secret wedding! It’s hard to imagine any President today pulling off such a stunt, isn’t it?
Julia was born into a prominent family and was in the public eye early, even before she was a First Lady. When she was about 19 years old, she posed for an advertisement for a dry-goods and clothing store. The ad showed her strolling in front of the store and carrying a handbag with an endorsement emblazoned across it. Below the picture, she was referenced as the Rose of Long Island.
What a scandal! In that day and age, socially prominent women (especially single women) were not supposed to be in newspaper advertisements. Her parents sent her on a tour of Europe until the scandal died down.
When Julia returned a year later, she became actively engaged in Washington D.C. social events. Her family was in town when First Lady Letitia Tyler passed away in September 1842. Within five months of his wife’s death, the widowed President began courting Julia, even though she was thirty years younger than he was. He even proposed marriage. She refused, but a romantic relationship continued.
Then, the couple was struck by a tragedy.
On February 28, 1844, the two were cruising down the Potomac on USS Princeton. The vessel was then new, and it was being demonstrated to a crowd of Washington insiders. Nearly 400 people were aboard, including Cabinet members, Julia, and her father. The commander of the ship decided to demonstrate the cannon aboard his ship.
They were the heaviest guns in the U.S. Navy. Unfortunately, one of his cannon salutes went awry. The cannon exploded, killing Julia's father, two Cabinet members, and several others. Many people were badly wounded.
It was the worst peacetime disaster that Americans had ever then seen. Reportedly, President Tyler wept when he saw the damage. The scene was so bloody that the women were kept below deck where they couldn’t see the gory scene. It was a tragedy, but it also brought Tyler and Julia closer together. She soon accepted the marriage proposal that she had previously rejected. They were married four months later in a small, secret ceremony with only 12 guests present. They announced their marriage to the general public, but not until after the fact.
Julia was a mere 24 years old—younger than the President’s oldest daughter.
So, to be honest, some thought the President a fool for marrying a woman so young. But, for the most part, the public adored Julia. A journalist dubbed her our “Lovely Lady Presidentress,” and the name stuck. She worked to improve the quality of White House entertainment—and she succeeded. Some of this success came because she sought the advice of former First Lady Dolley Madison, who lived nearby. But some of it surely came from Julia’s vibrant personality. She introduced European dances, such as the polka. And she used her personal popularity to advance Tyler’s political agenda whenever she could—especially the annexation of Texas.
Tyler’s time in office ended when Julia had been First Lady for less than a year. They moved home to Virginia and eventually had seven children together.
Would you believe that one of their grandchildren is still alive?
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Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Curt Mills, President John Tyler Has 2 Living Grandsons (U.S. News & World Report; Feb. 20, 2017)
John B. Roberts, Rating the First Ladies: The Women Who Influenced the Presidency (2004)
Kerry Walters, Explosion on the Potomac: The 1844 Calamity Aboard the USS Princeton (2013)
Margaret Truman, First Ladies: An Intimate Group Portrait of White House Wives (1995)
National First Ladies’ Library website: Julia Tyler
The White House Historical Association website: Julia Tyler
The White House website: Julia Tyler