13. The shocking and horrific death of her father finally convinced Julia of President Tyler’s love and sincerity
In the end, it was the sudden and tragic death of Julia’s father than led her to see Tyler as a potential husband. It was the last day of February in 1844 and the Gardiner family had been invited to join the President, his closest advisers and many other members of the Washington elite, on a cruise aboard a new steam frigate, the Princeton. What should have been a joyous day turned into a disaster when the captain ordered the ship’s cannon – ironically named ‘The Peacemaker’ – to be fired to honor the President. The malfunctioning cannon backfired, causing a huge explosion.
Julia was below deck at the time and so escaped the worst of the blast. However, her father, David Gardiner was killed immediately. Also killed in the accident were the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy. Julia was forced to return with her family and her father’s remains to the family home in East Hampton, where David was buried. Later on, Julia would recall that President Tyler’s strength, stoicism and kind words were of great comfort to her during this tough time – and made her look at him as a potential loving husband.
12. Only a handful of witnesses were there to see Julia become Mrs Tyler but the secret was soon out
Exactly a year after President Tyler first proposed to Julia, he did so again – and this time got a positive response. He popped the question at the 1844 George Washington Ball at the White House. By this point, East Coast society was full of rumors about the pair’s alleged romance since they had been spending so much time together. However, while nobody could doubt the President’s infatuation with Julia, he nevertheless agreed to a low-key wedding. At 54-years-old, Tyler ‘eloped’ with his young bride.
Just 12 guests were present for what otherwise would have been the society event of the year. Among those present at the Church of the Ascension in New York City on 26 June 1844 was the President’s son, though several of his other children missed their father’s big day. The small wedding party then enjoyed a low-key reception (since they were still in mourning for Julia’s father) at the Gardiner family home. The newlyweds then went on a decidedly-unromantic honeymoon to Jersey City, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
11. Julia was young and naïve but she found a mentor in feisty former First Lady Dolley Madison
Julia Gardiner Tyler was just 22-years-old when she moved into the White House as the First Lady of the United States. While she wasn’t the youngest woman to hold the role – that was Frances Folsom Cleveland, who was 21 when she married President Grover Cleveland in 1886 – she was still arguably out of her depth and surrounded by older, more-powerful men. Luckily, Julia found an ally and a mentor close-by. Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, lived just across the road from the White House. She and Julia struck up an unlikely friendship – Dolley was almost 80 – and even traveled to New York City together for short breaks.
As First Lady, Dolley was credited with being much more than a social hostess. She hosted functions that brought together politicians from both parties. Indeed, she is often credited with inventing bipartisan cooperation in American politics. Julia was determined to follow her lead. Though she was young, from the start she vowed to be an active First Lady. Indeed, the newspapers of the time noted how much energy she brought to her official duties – in marked contrast, they also noted, to the lethargy of her husband.
10. Despite the disapproval of many, as First Lady she loved to dance in the White House – and even embraced a scandalous new dance trend
Even though she was First Lady, with all the responsibilities that entailed, Julia was still a young lady, still in her 20s. And, as such, she still liked to have fun. Above all, she loved to dance, even though her 50-something husband didn’t care for it. She used her status to host balls in the White House. However, Julia broke all protocol by not just hosting such events, but publicly dancing herself. What’s more, she loved to dance the polka, the trendiest dance of the time.
Many observers were shocked at the goings-on in the East Room of the White House. Following the trends of the time, Julia would dance the polka with visiting European dignitaries, getting uncomfortably close and personal with her partners. Far from toning it down, Julia courted the controversy. Indeed, she made her love of the ‘scandalous’ polka known, helping to promote the dance and make it popular across the United States. The leading musicians of the day even wrote tunes in her honor, known as ‘Julia Waltzes’.
9. Long before the term ‘PR’ had even been invented, Julia knew how to play the press perfectly
Julia Gardiner Tyler was not the ‘shy and retiring’ type. Quite the opposite, in fact. She loved to be the center of attention, and she used every trick in the PR book to make sure she was. It was Julia who insisted she be called ‘The President’s Bride’ rather than simple ‘Mrs Tyler’ in the aftermath of their marriage. She then actively courted the press. Julia reached out to a New York Herald reporter and offered him exclusive access to all of the social events she planned on holding in the White House. In return, the reporter would make constant references to the First Lady’s grace and beauty.
Notably, Julia was keen to use all the latest PR tricks. Indeed, she was the first President’s wife to sit for a photograph portrait. She took time off her White House duties to visit the pioneering American photographer Edward Anthony in his studio in New York City. Between June 1844 and March 1845, Julia made several trips to the Big Apple to sit for the photographer. And she always insisted that the portraits be widely copied and distributed. Before long, her face was just as famous – perhaps even more so – than that of her husband, the President.
8. She was one of the first American fashion icons and women across the country copied her styles
Julia was a true fashion icon. Women across America would look to her for the latest trends, most of which she introduced to the country from Europe. But it wasn’t just European fashions that Julia brought to her native land. She was also clearly influenced by the pomp and ceremony of European royalty, ceremonies which she had witnessed first-hand whilst touring the continent. So, for instance, the First Lady would receive guests sat on an elevated throne-like chair and dressed in a fine white gown and even a headdress of peacock feathers.
Alongside her ornate dress, Julia is also reported to have surrounded herself with 12 young women dressed all in white – her own troop of ‘vestal virgins’, like some ancient Greek goddess. Somewhat surprisingly, the public were not put off by Julia’s lavish and ostentatious ways. Indeed, she was, by all accounts, hugely popular. Notably, the Grand Finale Ball she held at the White House towards the very end of her husband’s first and only term as President was the hottest ticket in town; in all, some 3,000 guests crammed into the Presidential mansion, including five foreign ambassadors.
7. The Tylers were the first White House occupants to have a dog, even if it was more of a fashion accessory for the First Lady
Over the years, many Presidents have enjoyed the company of a pet dog or cat in the White House. Indeed, President Trump is the first Commander-in-Chief to not have a pet for several decades! But it was Julia Tyler who first introduced the idea of a ‘First Dog’ to the world. And, again, she did so largely to improve her image with the wider public. Julia had only been resident in the White House for a few weeks when she took receipt of her dog, a short-haired Italian greyhound imported from the Consul of Naples.
There are no records of what the dog was called. However, several contemporary reports do reveal that Julia would regularly walk through the muddy streets of downtown Washington with the fashionable dog beside her. Indeed, she even had an official portrait made of the pet, again an American first. Quite what became of the dog once President Tyler’s term came to an end and the couple moved out of the White House remains a mystery, however.
6. A fan of European royal pomp, Julia was the first to make ‘Hail to the Chief’ a Presidential anthem
As proud wife of the President, Julia was the one who insisted that the tune ‘Hail to the Chief’ be played to announce her husband’s arrival. That’s not to say that the tune hadn’t been used for Presidential ceremonies before. Set to music in 1812, the song – which took its lyrics from a Sir Walter Scott poem – was played to salute first President Andrew Jackson and then again at the inauguration of Martin Van Buren in 1837. However, it’s certainly the case that it was Julia Gardiner Tyler who ordered the White House musicians to adopt ‘Hail to Chief’ as the official Presidential Anthem and use it as a matter of protocol.
And that wasn’t the only notable change Julia made to official ceremonies involving the President. She also had President Tyler stand against the back wall of the Oval Office when receiving guests. Previously, the President and First Lady stood in the middle of the room, welcoming visiting dignitaries and other guests. While undoubtedly a safer option from a security point-of-view, Julia was actually more concerned that her much-older husband not be exhausted and overwhelmed by people from all sides.
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.
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.
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’!
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.
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.
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