John Tyler Woos MRS. Gardiner

President John Tyler.

Mr. and Mrs. Tyler 1:

On his twenty-third birthday, John Tyler (1790-1861) married Miss Letitia Christian, the daughter of a wealthy pedigreed Virginia family. The courtship was traditional, the marriage bore fruit: eight little Tyler’s made an appearance, seven living to maturity.

Letitia Christian Tyler, the first Mrs. T.

Like many Southern gentlemen of that time, Tyler pursued a triple career: planter, lawyer and statesman. In the odd vagaries of early 19th century politics, Tyler, a strong follower of the Thomas Jefferson-states rights Democrats, became the vice-presidential running mate for Whig William Henry Harrison in 1840.

But even before Tyler’s election as Vice-President, Letitia had a severe stroke. She was not even fifty.

When the continuing vagaries of politics made John Tyler President a month later, following the unexpected death of Harrison, Letitia Tyler came to the White House with their seven children, but was confined to her bed or chair.  Her health continued to decline. Her daughters, and her daughter-in-law assumed the traditional First Lady role.

Miss Julia Gardiner

One of the earliest images of Julia Gardiner.

Julia Gardiner (1820-1889) was 21 or 22 when her family came to Washington DC for the social season. They were a wealthy New York family with four marriageable children.  The Gardiners, and in particular, Mrs. Juliana Lachlan Gardiner, expected her children to marry well.

Miss Julia, pretty, charming, properly educated and extremely proficient in the social graces, was an immediate hit. She attracted several potential suitors, but they were at least twice her age. She charmed, but declined.

Naturally enough, since Washington was still a small town and practically “seasonal” in population, the prominent Gardiner family was invited to the White House on occasion. President Tyler past fifty, still presented a fine figure of a man: tall, slim, considered an excellent horseman, and possessed of a courtly manner.

Julia Gardiner, about the time she was being wooed by the President.

The Gardiners returned to New York following their “season,” but before they returned to DC a few months later, Letitia Tyler had died. This “season,” the widowed President began casting his interested eye on the lovely Julia – a full thirty years his junior.

Julia was flattered. Pretty, somewhat spoiled and very wealthy, she had received many proposals from old men. It was becoming tiresome. But John Tyler, politically and personally, was a persistent man, and the presidency itself was certainly a bonus. She was wavering.

The Princeton Tragedy

In early 1844, the gunboat Princeton was the star of the US Navy, and a revolutionary new cannon nicknamed “Peacemaker” had been installed. The President had invited some 200 guests on a party cruise down the Potomac to demonstrate the new gun. Julia Gardiner and her father, David Gardiner, were included.

It was a disaster that provided the impetus for John Tyler and Julia Gardiner to become closer.

After several successful firings, while most of the guests were below deck for refreshments, the gun was fired again – but this time it misfired. Six were killed, including Julia’s father.

The President was deeply solicitous of the Gardiner family, providing bouquets and letters of condolence and discreet invitations to “suitable” small luncheons or teas. Julia, always a daddy’s girl, had just lost her daddy; Tyler the father-figure became more and more appealing. Julia said yes, pending the customary mourning traditions – and absolute permission from her mother.

Juliana Lachlan Gardiner

Juliana Lachlan Gardiner (1799-1864) was nearly nine years younger than the President. As the only surviving child of a very wealthy New York brewer, she had inherited a substantial fortune, which in time increased exponentially in value. At sixteen, she married David Gardiner, fifteen years her senior, who owned valuable property in the Hamptons on Long Island. Their combined wealth was staggering.

With little to do other than count his money, David Gardiner served for a few years as NY State Senator – and retained the title thereafter. Juliana was the formidable household manager: firm and controlling. Their four children (two boys, two girls, in that order) had the finest of everything: clothing, jewels and carriages, traditionally excellent educations, posh vacations and top-drawer acquaintances. Nothing but the best was good enough for Juliana Gardiner.

Mrs. Gardiner: Good Enough?

President Tyler, now encouraged by his intended, duly wrote to Mrs. Gardiner “to obtain your consent to our marriage, which in all dutiful obedience she refers to your decision,” adding that “[his] position in Society will I trust serve as a guarantee for the appearance which I give.”

A more mature Julia Gardiner Tyler.

Of course Juliana knew his position in Society. Being President had considerable value. She also knew that Tyler came from a prominent Virginia family. But his comfortable material wealth paled in comparison to the extremely wealthy and pretentious Gardiners. Juliana had no objection to their 30-year age-gap, nor the fact that the widower already had seven children and a few grandchildren. Or even the fact that she herself was several years younger than her daughter’s suitor.

It was money, plain and simple. She had to insist that anyone who married her daughter provide “all the necessary comforts and elegancies of life” – something all her children had enjoyed throughout their lives, and which (to her) was deemed essential.

For a woman who had recently been bereaved, Juliana immediately got to the nub: Did Tyler have enough money?

“Sherwood Forest,” The Tyler plantation in Virginia. Nice place!

The President was not nearly in the category of the uber-wealthy Gardiners, but he was a mean of means and property. He also sincerely loved Miss Julia, and vowed to her formidable and materialistic mother, that her daughter would want for nothing.  Mrs. G. acquiesced, and even poured some Gardiner-money in to the White House, which had not been up to her aristocratic snuff.

Turns out that John and Mrs. Tyler 2 had a happy marriage for the next twenty-one years – until his death.  And they had another seven children!  And Juliana Gardiner was always a welcome part of their lives.

Sources:

Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – America’s First Families – Touchstone Books, 2000

Seager, Robert III – And Tyler Too, McGraw Hill, 1963

http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=11

http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/tyler-narrowly-escapes-death-on-the-uss-princeton

 

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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