When William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office after succumbing to pneumonia in April of 1841, vice president John Tyler ascended to fill his vacancy and thus became the first president to ever not be elected by a vote of the people.
With him came his wife, the new first lady Letitia Christian Tyler. The daughter of a prosperous Virginia planter, Letitia was said to be shy, quiet, and completely devoted to her family. She and John had eight children together. But a paralytic stroke in 1839 had left her basically an invalid, confined to an upstairs bedroom of the White House for the duration of her tenure as First Lady. She died in that room on September 10, 1842. At 51, she was the first First Lady to die in office, and she remains to this day the youngest First Lady ever to die.
Julia was known to be a free and somewhat wild spirit, shirking many of the responsibilities usually imposed upon a young lady of means and a good name in the 1840s. Her strikingly good looks turned heads, but it was her insistence upon being an individual unbridled by propriety which made people remember her. She is purported to have carried an advertisement placard around the streets of Manhattan, and once posed in an ad for a department store, which billed her as “the rose of Long Island.” Her parents had quickly ushered her away to Europe for a year, but they couldn’t kill her spirit.
On her return from Europe, Julia began making the social rounds in Washington, and it was there, at a White House reception, that she was introduced to President John Tyler. The Gardiners were a well-known and well-respected old New York family, hailing from aptly-named Gardiners Island off the east coast of Long Island. The president, so recently a widower, was instantly smitten with the vivacious young woman, and began to pursue her affections privately.
On February 28, 1844, Julia, along with her sister, father, former First Lady Dolley Madison, and several other Washington dignitaries were invited for a pleasure cruise along the Potomac on the USS Princeton. While passing George Washington’s former estate at Mount Vernon, the ship was to perform a symbolic firing of its guns. The ship’s passengers assembled on deck to view the spectacle, but on the third firing, the gun exploded, sending shrapnel through the crowd. Several members of Tyler’s cabinet were killed, along with former Senator Gardiner, Julia’s father. Grief-stricken, she fled to the family’s townhome at number 430 LaGrange Terrace in New York City.
Horrified and guilt-ridden, the President called regularly upon Julia in New York. Appreciation blossomed into affection as Julia was comforted by his presence, and within months, she agreed to marry him.
Due to the somewhat scandalous circumstances surrounding their courtship and engagement, not to mention their age difference, the two went to lengths to minimize the publicity of their marriage. On June 26, 1844, the two slipped from LaGrange Terrace to the newly-completed Church of the Ascension at 5th Avenue and 10th Street, and were married by Episcopal Bishop Benjamin Onderdonk. At age 21, Julia became the youngest-ever First Lady of the United States. Her youth, vivacity, glamour, and insistence upon upholding European courtly procedures made her a wildly popular and well-liked First Lady. She softened the image of her husband, who struggled desperately to connect to his people.
Tyler’s presidency was marred from the beginning; his political detractors refused, to the end, to acknowledge his legitimacy as Harrison’s successor. Bitter, Tyler would return any mail which addressed him as “acting” or “vice” president. And he had the misfortune to have been swept into power during a highly tumultuous time in America’s history: newly independent Texas wished to be annexed into the Union, and the nation was splitting along passionate slavery/anti-slavery lines which would ultimately lead to the Civil War. Opposition by abolitionist politicians to the slave-holding president reached a fever pitch in 1842, when the Whig congress attempted to impeach Tyler. Sensing imminent defeat in his 1844 re-election, he chose to not seek a second term as President, stepping aside instead for pro-annexation James K. Polk. Texas was annexed shortly after Polk took office, sweeping the nation into war with Mexico.
The Tylers retired into relative obscurity at John’s family plantation at Sherwood Forest, Virginia, producing seven children together. During the Civil War, Tyler was a staunch supporter of the Confederacy, and was elected a delegate from Virginia to the Confederate Congress. But on January 18, 1862, before he could take his seat in Congress, Tyler suffered a stroke and died. Due to his Confederate ties, he remains the only President to not have his death recognized by Washington.
Today, Tyler is regarded as an obscure and unimportant President by most historians. Perhaps he never wanted to be President, thrust as he was into the spotlight by his predecessor’s sudden passing. And with Letitia’s death, the USS Princeton tragedy, and the brutal politicking of 1840s-era Washington, it was all John could do to find a little humanity and happiness in his life. He needed, desperately, an injection of light in his otherwise dark and turbulent life.
Julia provided all that and more, being perhaps the most memorable aspect of her husband’s presidency. Married for 18 years and siring 7 children together, their happy union began under a veil of secrecy at a little church on 5th Avenue.