Letitia Tyler had been confined to an invalid's chair for two years when her husband unexpectedly became president. After taking the oath of office as vice president in 1841, John had planned to fill his duties from his home in Williamsburg where Letitia was most comfortable, her Bible, prayer book, and knitting at her side.
Born on a Tidewater Virginia plantation in 1790, Letitia received no formal education, but she learned all the skills of managing a plantation, rearing a family, and presiding over a home that would be John Tyler's refuge during an active political life. They were married on March 29, 1813. Thereafter, whether he served in Congress or as governor of Virginia, she attended to domestic duties. Only once did she join him for the winter social season in Washington. Of the eight children she bore, seven survived; but after 1839 she was a cripple, though "still beautiful now in her declining years."
Her daughter-in-law, Pricilla, described her as, "the most entirely unselfish person you can imagine.... Notwithstanding her very delicate health, mother attends to and regulates all the household affairs and all so quietly that you can't tell when she does it."
In a second-floor room at the White House, Letitia Tyler kept her quiet but pivotal role in family activities. She did not take part in the social affairs of the administration. Priscilla, at age 24, assumed the position of White House hostess. She met its demands with spirit and success, and enjoyed it. Daughter of a well-known tragedian, Priscilla Cooper had won the interest of Robert Tyler, whom she married in 1839. Intelligent and beautiful, with dark brown hair, she charmed the president's guests. Pricilla enjoyed the expert advice of Dolley Madison, and the companionship of her young sister-in-law Elizabeth.
Born in 1820, Julia Gardiner by the age of 20 was already famous as the "Rose of Long Island." Descended from prominent and wealthy New York families, she was trained for a life in society. A European tour with her family gave her glimpses of social splendors. Late in 1842 the Gardiners went to Washington for the winter social season, and Julia became the undisputed darling of the capital. She attracted the most eminent men in the city, among them President Tyler, a widower since September.
Tragedy brought Tyler’s courtship poignant success the next winter. Julia’s father lost his life in the explosion of a huge naval gun. Tyler comforted Julia in her grief and won her consent to a secret engagement.
The first president to marry in office took his vows in New York on June 26, 1844. The news was then broken to the American people, who greeted it with keen interest, much publicity, and some criticism about the couple's difference in age: 30 years.
As young Mrs. Tyler said herself, she "reigned" as first lady for the last eight months of her husband's term. She enjoyed her position immensely, and filled it with grace. For receptions she revived the formality of the Van Buren administration, welcoming guests with plumes in her hair and attended by maids of honor. She once declared, "Nothing appears to delight the President more than...to hear people sing my praises."
The Tylers' happiness was unshaken when they retired to their home at Sherwood Forest in Virginia. There, Julia bore five of her seven children and acted as mistress of the plantation until the Civil War. She defended both states' rights and the institution of slavery. She championed the political views of her husband, who remained for her "the President" until the end of his life. His death in 1862 came as a severe blow to her.
As a refugee in New York, she devoted herself to volunteer work for the Confederacy. Its defeat found her impoverished. Congress in 1870 voted a pension for Mary Lincoln, and Julia Tyler used this precedent in seeking help. In December 1880 Congress voted her $1,200 a year - and after Garfield's assassination it passed bills to grant uniform amounts of $5,000 annually to Mrs. Garfield, Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Polk, and Mrs. Tyler. Living out her last years comfortably in Richmond, Julia died there in 1889 and was buried there at her husband's side.