Julia Gardiner was born on May 4, 1820 to Juliana McLachlan and David Gardiner, descendent of prominent and wealthy New York families. Julia was trained from childhood for a life in society; she made her debut at 15. A European tour with her family gave her new 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. Her beauty and her practiced charm attracted the most eminent men in the city, among them President John Tyler, a widower since September.
President Tyler first proposed to Julia in February 1843 at a White House masquerade ball; she refused. Tragedy brought his courtship poignant success the next winter. Julia, her sister Margaret, and her father joined in a presidential excursion on the new steam frigate Princeton; and David Gardiner 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 Mrs. Tyler said herself, she “reigned” as first lady for the last eight months of her husband’s term. Wearing white satin or black lace to obey the conventions of mourning, she presided with vivacity and animation at a series of parties. She enjoyed her position immensely, and filled it with grace. For receptions she revived the formality of the Van Buren administration; she welcomed her guests with plumes in her hair, attended by maids of honor dressed in white. She once declared, with truth: “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 gave birth to five of her seven children; and she acted as mistress of the plantation until the Civil War, managing the estate's enslaved people. As such, 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.
Even as a refugee in New York she devoted herself to volunteer work for the Confederacy. Its defeat found her impoverished. Not until 1958 would federal law provide automatic pensions for presidential widows; but 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 on July 10, 1889 and was buried there at her husband’s side.
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