John Tyler was a man of Firsts. The First Vice President-to-President, the First President to remarry, and the President with the most children – fourteen.
John Tyler became President in April, 1841, only one month after William Henry Harrison was inaugurated President. Harrison, nearing seventy, had died suddenly, making John Tyler the first Vice President to assume office upon the death of a President.
At fifty-one, Tyler arrived at the White House with his stroke-crippled wife and seven children between eleven and twenty-five. Within a year, his wife died, and a daughter-in-law subbed for hosting duties. John Tyler, a Virginian, was known for his southern hospitality.
After a respectful mourning period, the lonely President cast an appreciative eye on Miss Julia Gardiner, a glamorous young woman thirty years his junior.
Julia Gardiner was a New Yorker, very pretty, very cultured, very charming, and very very rich. A few years earlier, she had been involved in an 1840-style scandal! A New York merchant used her likeness (perhaps with her permission), on his advertising circulars, identifying her as “Miss Julia Gardiner, the Rose of Long Island.” Her wealthy and socially upper-crust parents were horrified, and whisked the family off to Europe for two years, to let the talk die down.
When they returned, since she and her siblings were of marriageable age, her father took them to Washington. Having hobnobbed with the rich, powerful and titled in Rome, London and Paris, the Gardiners decided to do likewise in Washington. They settled in for the social season and left their cards everywhere – including the White House. As expected, invitations poured in – including one to a Tyler reception, where the President was much taken with “The Rose.”
Julia was only twenty-three, and was being pursued by a bevy of would-be wooers, all old enough to be her father. She declined their proposals. The President of the United States, however, was a different story. He pursued and wooed, and she declined. But he persisted. She wavered. The POTUS presented a heady possibility.
Then came a disaster. Julia and her father had been invited by the President to join a party cruise down the Potomac. The gunboat Princeton had been fitted with a new cannon which would be demonstrated to some three hundred Tyler’s guests. All went well. The demonstrations were successful.
Later in the afternoon, as the ladies went below for a luncheon, the gun was demonstrated once more. This time, it misfired, killing several onlookers, including David Gardiner, Julia’s father.
“The Rose” was understandably distraught, and the solicitous President plied her with condolence notes and flowers. Then he sent invitations to appropriately private luncheons and teas. Julia, a daddy’s girl who had just lost her daddy, became more receptive to the President’s kind attentions. He was, after all, still slim and attractive at fifty-four. This time, when he proposed, she accepted, but only if her mother consented. Mrs. Gardiner, who was even richer than her husband had been, did not consent. She did not think Tyler was wealthy enough to support the Gardiner lifestyle. She had a point. Tyler was comfortably well-off, but hardly in the Gardiner class. But President Tyler was nothing if not persistent. He had persevered with Julia and would now persevere with her formidable mother. It paid off. He finally won her approval.
So in a few months, the President quietly slipped out of Washington with one son and only one naval escort, and came to New York. He checked into a fashionable hotel, asked for the manager, and proceeded to place the hotel and its staff in immediate lockdown. No one was allowed to enter or leave. Tyler did not want his presence known, nor did he want speculation as to his purpose. The next morning, after he released all his “hostages” and shook hands with everyone, he went to the Church of the Ascension, where he and his bride were married in a small private ceremony. Then they went to the Gardiner town house for the wedding breakfast. Later, the President and the new First Lady drove in an open carriage down Broadway, where they were indeed recognized, and the purpose surmised. The news, of course, spread like wildfire.
So why the elopement? The reason the President usually gave was understandable. It had only been a few months since David Gardiner had died. Julia was still in mourning and the proprieties must be observed.
Then, of course, it could be conjectured that John Tyler did not wish to incur “cradle robbing” snickers and gossip. Finally, there were the seven Tyler children (three of whom were older than their new step-mother). They had not been told of the marriage, and it was big news to them, and not particularly welcome. It might also be conjectured that their inheritance might be dissipated should the new marriage be fruitful. A legitimate concern.
As it was, the snickers and gossip abounded anyway. The President was called either “Lucky John,” or “that old fool.” Turns out “Lucky John” prevailed. His second marriage was a happy one. It was also very fruitful, to the dismay of his “first” family. Seven more little Tylers would make an appearance, the last one, when Tyler was nearly seventy. With fourteen children who reached adulthood, Tyler was the most “fathered” of all our Presidents.
- Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
- Seager, Robert III – And Tyler Too, McGraw Hill, 1963
- Truman, Margaret – First Ladies, Random House, 1995