Julia Gardiner Tyler spent only seven months as First Lady; then she went to live in Virginia.
JGT: The Young Wife
Julia Gardiner (1820-1889) was only 24 when she married sitting President John Tyler, a recent widower. At 54, Tyler was still considered a fine figure of a man; tall, lean, an excellent horseman, graceful dancer (of mild dances), splendid orator, and a Southern charmer of the first order.
The former Miss Gardiner, known to some as “The Rose of Long Island,” came from a wealthy New York family, had been educated at a fine finishing school, and had spent two years in Europe. She was also good looking. The thirty years that separated the “Rose” from the President, along with the seven children Tyler had with his first wife, did not preclude a successful union. John and Julia Tyler had seven children of their own.
The Adopted Daughter of Dixie
The new Mrs. Tyler was definitely a Northerner, and a wealthy and cosmopolitan New Yorker at that. Her new husband’s Virginia plantation, which he named Sherwood Forest, was located along the James River, midway between Williamsburg and Richmond.
Virginia was then, still is, and always will be, a state proud of its heritage and its Southern character. The former President, born and raised in Virginia, and having a father who served as its Governor, was always a well respected citizen, with the requisite Southern charm and manners.
For Julia, it was an adjustment. The neighbors were initially aloof to this Northerner now in their midst, but she won them over. She could assimilate “her” airs with “their” airs, entertain and host with as much grace and style as they did, and had tons of Gardiner money to outdo them, if she so chose. She did not choose alienation; she chose acceptance.
The Tyler Lifestyle
For fifteen years, John and Julia Tyler enjoyed a traditional Virginia planter’s life. They had picnics and barbecues, dinners and dances, visited friends and neighbors, spent time with her family in New York every year, traveled to Saratoga Springs for the waters, and visited the hot springs in the western part of Virginia. They had their own boat to take them up and down the James River to visit friends. It is said that she designed liveries for her boat-servants, with Sherwood Forest’s emblem and a little golden-arrow on the collar.
John Tyler was a lawyer by profession, and even in his retirement years, practiced law – a little. Mostly he tended to his beautiful plantation and to raising his growing second-family. His last child, a daughter, would be born when he was nearly seventy. But as a former President of the United States, Tyler was also in demand politically, and asked to speak or chair discussions in various locations in Virginia. He did so willingly.
The Tyler Political Dilemma
The 1850s were unquestionably a time of divisiveness and turmoil throughout the country, and in particular in the South. The popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin created a furor in Dixieland. The Dred Scott decision, wherein the Supreme Court in essence claimed that no Negro could ever be a citizen (even if he had lived for years in a free state), caused a brouhaha throughout the country, especially when it was coupled with a harsh law demanding the return of runaway slaves. Talk of secession was becoming louder and more strident.
John Tyler had been President of the United States, and despite the fact that his presidency and even he, himself, had been generally unpopular, he felt the importance of that position (or former position) keenly. He had been in public service since he was a young man, as a Virginia legislator, and both a Congressman and Senator for several years. He maintained a low profile.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, and the dreaded secession process began in earnest, there was a last ditch effort on the part of many prominent Southerners to hold a conference of notables, and try to design a workable solution. Ex-President Tyler was asked to preside. Most people, including Lincoln, believed it would be fruitless; another rehash of the same-old grievances and impossible alternatives.
They were right. The conference failed, and the representatives returned home.
Like a good many Virginians, Tyler was against secession. Virginia originally voted to remain in the Union. But after Fort Sumter, when President Lincoln called for military volunteers, Virginia called for another vote, and this time, chose to secede along with her sister Southern states. Again, like a good many Virginians, Tyler believed that his “country” was Virginia.
With bravado, brash and dash, Virginians quickly organized their Confederate government, and elected 70-year-old ex-President John Tyler as a Congressman. He accepted and went to Richmond, only a short distance from his plantation.
Julia Tyler’s Bad Dream
Mrs. Tyler’s husband had only been gone for a few days, when the 41-year-old mother of seven children under fifteen abruptly awoke from her sleep, frightened by a terrible dream: that her husband had suffered a stroke and died.
The dream had been so real that Julia was unable to calm her nerves and decided to see for herself. She flagged the James River steamboat that regularly passed their plantation, took the two hour trip to Richmond, and went immediately to Tyler’s hotel.
She was delighted and relieved to find him not only alive, but in good health and spirits. They had supper together. All was well, and Julia prepared to return home the following day.
But the following morning, as Tyler was starting to wash and dress, he collapsed with a massive stroke. He died within hours.
It was exactly the way Julia had dreamt.
- 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