Julia Gardiner was the second wife of 10th U.S. president John Tyler, and served as his First Lady, his first wife having died during his first year in that office. Born May 4, 1820, on Gardiner’s Island in New York, Julia had the privilege of growing up on one of the largest privately owned islands in the country. Her father was David Gardiner, a large New York landowner and one-term New York state senator, and her mother was Juliana MacLachlan. She had an exemplary education at the Chegary Institute in New York, and had all the background, training, and hallmarks to be a notable New York socialite and a sought-after woman on the marriage market in high society.
However, Julia, whether through innocence or rebelliousness, caused her family some scandal. In 1839, she appeared with an unnamed man in a newspaper advertisement for a middle-class department store. In the ad, she was identified as the Rose of Long Island. New York high society was shocked and appalled she would do such a common thing. Her family took her out of the country to avoid any further scandal, and to let the furor over her ad appearance subside. From October 1840 to September 1841, she and her parents toured much of continental Europe together.
In January of 1842, she was introduced to John Tyler, who was already President of the United States and recently widowed. The introduction took place at a reception at the White House. Tyler immediately expressed interest in getting to know the 21 year old Julia better. Julia, who was high-spirited and independent, was not initially interested in becoming involved with a serious-natured man who was 30 years older than her. Tyler proposed to her for the first time in February of 1843, but she refused, and also refused his many subsequent proposals. However, the amount of time she was spending at the White House, giving Tyler all of those opportunities to propose to her, was causing much public speculation about the true nature of their relationship.
Tyler’s first wife, Letitia Christian Tyler, was First Lady for only a year and a half, and in name only, having suffered a paralytic stroke two years before her husband’s election. She lived upstairs in the White House and never came down, except once, for the wedding of one of her daughters. She died in the White House in September of 1842, being the first First Lady to die while in the role. One of the Tyler daughters-in-law acted as de facto First Lady until Julia became the new Mrs. Tyler.
After several unsuccessful proposals to Julia, things changed between the president and this strong-minded young lady later in 1843. Julia, her sister Margaret, her father David, and President Tyler all went on an excursion together with other presidential guests on a new steam frigate called The Princeton. During this excursion, a large naval gun on the frigate called The Peacemaker exploded, killing Julia’s beloved father and several others. President Tyler was a principal source of support and comfort to Julia in her grief, and she eventually agreed to a secret engagement at the George Washington Ball in 1844.
The engagement wasn’t secret for long, as the couple wed that same year. They took a brief honeymoon to Philadelphia, then Julia jumped into her new duties as First Lady, embracing them. To someone young and vibrant as Julia, the role was a welcome, enjoyable one. Though Tyler often appeared visibly fatigued at official White House events, Julia was always energetic and in the middle of all the most fun action.
It was also Julia who made playing “Hail to the Chief” a regular thing whenever a president entered a room. The song had been played before at presidential events, but Julia ordered it played at every event, no matter how large or small, to announce the arrival of the president. When her successor, Sarah Polk, continued this mandate, it became White House tradition and remains so to this day.
After Tyler’s presidency ended, he and Julia retired to his Virginia plantation. Though she was a northerner by birth, Julia quickly grew used to the leisurely pace of plantation life and being served by a large contingent of slaves. She even wrote and published a defense of slavery titled “The Women of England vs. The Women of America,” after an English duchess published a pamphlet denouncing American slavery. Julia’s publication prompted freed slave and abolitionist activist Harriet Tubman to write her first published work in 1853, which was published in the New York Tribune.
Her Confederate sympathies did not endear her to her own family, either. When Tyler died in 1862, she soon lost more than 60 slaves and 1,100 acres of land due to the military conflicts of the Civil War. She moved to Staten Island, New York, with her children who were still minors, and lived with her mother. Her brother, David, was so enraged by her Confederate leanings that he did not accompany her from Virginia to New York and moved out of their mother’s house soon after she moved in.
She did not endear herself to locals in New York, either. Union soldiers almost burned down her mother’s house when they discovered Julia flying a Confederate flag from it, but ultimately left it alone for her mother’s sake. When her mother died in 1865, her brother David objected to the fact the bulk of their mother’s estate had been left to Julia in their mother’s will, and he sued. He claimed Julia unduly influenced their mother to leave most of her estate to her, when their mother was not of sound mind to make such a decision. He won twice in court, once in regular court and once on appeal. The court decision ordered their mother’s estate to be divided between the siblings equally, as if there had been no will.
An editorial in the New York Times on the matter sided with Julia, claiming her to have been treated unfairly due to the conflict of the Civil War, which divided more than one family against each other, Julia’s family is a more public example of it.
After all this turmoil, Julia converted to Catholicism in 1872, lost most of the rest of her money and property in the economic depression that followed the Civil War, and moved back to Virginia to live with and be supported by her grown children. She petitioned Congress for a pension in 1880 and was granted one; the following year, after the assassination of President James Garfield, Congress voted to give all presidential widows, Julia included, an annual pension of $5,000.
Julia and Tyler had seven children together. These were in addition to the seven children who lived past childhood he had with his first wife. Upon his marriage to Julia, when he was 54 and she was 24, his sons from his first wife readily accepted the marriage, but his daughters were upset by it. Julia was only five years younger than the youngest Tyler daughter at the time. One of Tyler’s daughters, Letitia, never reconciled with Julia.
Interestingly, John Tyler and Julia Gardiner have two living grandsons who are still in the world today. Yes, that’s right… grandsons. Not great-anything. John and Julia’s fourth son, Lyon Tyler, was born when the former president was 63 years old. Lyon married twice, like his father, and had children with both wives. His youngest child was born when he was 75 years old. So, two of John Tyler and Julia’s grandsons, born in 1924 and 1928, respectively, to their son, Lyon, are still alive today. Incredible for men with a grandfather born in 1790 and a grandmother born in 1820.
Julia died in 1889, age 69, and was buried next to Tyler in the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
Julia has the distinction of being the first First Lady to marry a president during his tenure in the White House.