Julia Gardiner Tyler was One of the U.S. Colorful Leading Woman
Julia Gardiner Tyler was One of the U.S. Colorful Leading Woman

Julia Gardiner Tyler was One of the U.S. Colorful Leading Woman

D.G. Hewitt - March 18, 2019

Julia Gardiner Tyler was One of the U.S. Colorful Leading Woman
Julia became known as an active First Lady, as this cartoon shows. Wikimedia Commons.

5. As First Lady and a celebrity, many ordinary Americans reached out to Julia, including those in desperate circumstances

Unlike many First Ladies, Julia Gardiner Tyler had little political experience before moving into the White House. She had never fought an election campaign, for instance, while her youth also meant she had only a rudimentary understanding of the complex machinations of American government. But that didn’t stop Julia from trying to be more than just a White House hostess. Above all, she felt she had a duty to try and help those who reached out to her in desperation. Her fame led to the First Lady receiving numerous requests for Presidential pardons or clemency.

In many cases, Julia did indeed petition the relevant Cabinet members, or even her husband, on behalf of individual citizens. And it worked too. In one famous instance, the First Lady successfully intervened on behalf of a New Yorker whose name was only recorded as ‘Babe’. Accused of ‘piracy on the high seas’ and sentenced to death, Julia managed to have his conviction overturned, saving an innocent man’s life. On numerous other occasions, she also convinced the military chiefs to grant individual soldiers extra leave, or she successfully found jobs in the Federal Government for the unemployed.

Julia Gardiner Tyler was One of the U.S. Colorful Leading Woman
The Tylers retired to this plantation, Sherwood Forest, where they held more than 60 slaves. Wikipedia.

4. Like her husband, Julia had no moral objections to slavery – though she did object to Europeans telling slave-owners what to do!

After leaving the White House, the Tylers retired to Sherwood Forest, the plantation outside of Charles City, Virginia, owned by the President. Though Julia had been born and raised in the northern United States, and though she had traveled extensively through Europe, she nevertheless soon adjusted to life as the wife of a wealthy, southern plantation owner – and slave owner. The couple owned more than 60 slaves, put to work on around 1,100 acres of land.

Far from criticizing slavery, Julia sided with her husband, arguing that it was a State issue and that the Federal Government had no place interfering in a citizen’s business affairs. In fact, Julia even went so far as to write an essay in defense of slavery. Entitled The Women of England Vs. the Women of America, it was a direct response against an English-led petition to abolish the Atlantic slave trade. In turn, Julia’s polemic prompted the former slave Harriet Jacobs to pick up a pen and write the first of her many acclaimed and influential works highlighting the inherent evil of slavery.

Julia Gardiner Tyler was One of the U.S. Colorful Leading Woman
Julia was still relatively young and active when she became a widow. Pinterest.

3. Julia was made a widow before her 60th birthday, and from then on insisted on being called ‘Mrs Ex-President Tyler’

President John Tyler died just after midnight on 17 January 1862. Julia was by his side. Notably, due to his allegiance to the Confederate States of America, his death was not officially recognized in Washington – the first and only time this has happened. At his funeral, the former President’s coffin was covered in the Confederate flag – a clear symbol of his allegiance in the civil strife that was to tear America apart. Julia also remained staunchly pro-Confederacy. Despite this, she managed to obtain special dispensation, allowing her to travel across the lines separating the warring North and South.

Julia spent much of the Civil War far away from the fighting. Using her wealth and connections, she managed to travel to Bermuda. And she stayed, enjoying the Caribbean sunshine and the company of other exiled Confederates. Before the war was over, she returned to America, taking up residence in Staten Island. While some Confederacy supporters laid low, Julia was not one of them. Instead, in the immediate aftermath of the war, she threw herself into her social life – and she insisted on being called ‘Mrs Ex-President Tyler’!

Julia Gardiner Tyler was One of the U.S. Colorful Leading Woman
President Tyler was not buried with full honors and Julia had to fight for a pension. Wikimedia Commons.

2. As former First Lady, Julia was hit hard by a financial crash and then her own brother sued her over their mother’s will

The former President hit Julia hard, including on a financial level. What’s more, the Civil War meant that she lost around 60 slaves and some 1,100 acres of land. Before long, she decided to move back to New York. Her brother David had moved out of their mother’s old house, so Julia moved, bringing a couple of her own children with her. Them, three years after her husband’s death in 1862, her own brother hit Julia with a lawsuit. The siblings went to court, with David alleging that Julia had exploited their mother’s supposed “mental incapacity” to get the lion’s share of the inheritance.

Shockingly for Julia, the courts sided with David and declared their mother’s will invalid. The family inheritance was then re-distributed, with Julia losing out. To make matters worse, the financial crisis of 1873 – known then as the Panic of 1873 – further hit Julia hard. As a result, Julia moved to Virginia in 1873. She moved in with her children and was forced to rely on them for money. The days of enjoying the good life and the luxuries that came with being the First Lady were well and truly over.

Julia Gardiner Tyler was One of the U.S. Colorful Leading Woman
Julia was buried alongside her husband, President and First Lady together forever. Find A Grave.

1. The former First Lady had to fight hard to get an official pension – but only had a few years of financial comfort at the end

In the end, Julia Tyler was able to live her last few years in relative comfort. After months of lobbying hard, in 1880, Congress finally agreed to pay her a monthly allowance. Though this was far short of the official pension Julia wanted – and believed she deserved – it eased her worries considerably and allowed her to be more independent. Then, the unexpected death of President James Garfield in 1881 led to a change in the rules. Congress finally agreed to grant the widows of former Presidents an annual pension of $5,000 – a sizeable sum and enough for Julia to live more than comfortably.

Sadly, however, Julia would only live another 8 years. In July of 1899, she suffered a stroke whilst on holiday in Richmond. She died shortly afterwards in the Exchange Hotel in the city. Since she had converted to Roman Catholicism late in life, she was given a full religious funeral. While her husband might be one of America’s ‘forgotten Presidents’, Julia is remembered as one of the country’s most colourful First Ladies, even if her attitudes to slavery do taint her legacy.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Julia Tyler Biography.” National First Ladies’ Library.

“Julia Gardiner Tyler.” The White House.

“Julia Gardiner: Wife of a President.” The East Hampton Star.

“Tenth President John Tyler’s Grandsons Are Still Alive.” Daily Mail, August 2017.

“Julia Tyler.” The White House Historical Association.

“Julia Tyler’s Premonition.” Presidential History Blog.

“Women and Slavery: Julia Gardiner Tyler and the Duchess of Sutherland.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.

“Julia Gardiner Tyler.” The Miller Center.

“Convert Julia Tyler: America’s Tenth First Lady.” Catholicism.org.