Convert Julia Tyler America’s Tenth First Lady

Belle of the Ball to Daughter of the Church

Her term as First Lady was only eight months. Julia Gardiner married President John Tyler, thirty years older than she, in June 1844, while he was president  His term ended 4 March 1845. Tyler, before assuming the presidency, had been Vice-President under President William Henry Harrison. “Old Tippicanoe” died April 4, 1841, after being in office for only one month. They were elected as candidates of the Whig Party.Tyler, after his incumbency, would not aspire to a second term.

She was quite the debutante — beautiful — and loved going to balls and hosting parties at the White House. The wine flowed with this First Lady (Protestant newspapers had a field day) and the waltz was in vogue at the Capitol. They even named the music of a popular polka dance after her, “The Julia Waltzes.” And, get this — although First Ladys before her had hosted dances at the White House Mrs. Tyler was the first to have publicly danced during her tenure in the White House. She loved attention, it seems, as historians take note of her peculiar peculiarities for certain Juliaesque formalities wherein, for example, she would surround herself with a cortege of eligible young bachelorettes (twelve to be exact) at official receptions. Ah, yes, she even directed the marine band to play a specific marching tune whenever she and the president entered a public event. That tune is? You guessed it, “Hail to the Chief”. To be fair, Julia imbibed a few of these protocols from her tours throughout Europe visiting royals and nobles, not to mention the pope, Gregory XVI. She carried  letters of introduction from the American Attorney General, a friend of her fathers, and another door-opener from the American ambassador to France, Lewis Chase. Too, she was the first First Lady to pose for a photograph.

If vain, she was also warm-hearted, charitable, and a devoted mother. She and John Tyler had seven children. It must be noted too that all her extravagance (she even drove a regal coach with eight matching white Arabian horses) was paid out of her own family teasury.

Julia, born in 1820, came into this world on her father’s island, Gardiner’s Island, off of eastern Long Island, New York. The island located in Gardiner’s Bay between the two peninsulas at the end of Long Island had been owned by the family (and still is) since 1639 when Lion Gardiner purchased it from the Montaukett chief Wyandanch. Her father, David Gardiner, in addition to having been a New York State senator, was successful in several early business ventures ending with his most lucrative, that of selling real estate from his many properties. Obviously, the Gardiners were rich and Julia received an education at the exclusive and fashionably French Chegary Institute for Young Ladies in Manhattan. No wonder the cultured Julia enjoyed gala events and the “finer things” of high society.

The Marriage

Julia, in her late teens, made a fatal faux pas. She posed for a department store handbag ad geared at the middle class. That was socially incorrect. What did the Gardiners do? They whisked Julia off to Europe until the notoriety subsided. Arriving in October 1840, they visited England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Ireland and Scotland before returning to New York in September 1841. The Gardiners then moved to Washington D.C. They were often guests of President Tyler at the White House. When the president’s wife died in 1843, he began to show romantic interest in Julia whom he unsuccessfully proposed to. In February 1844, she and her father went on a cruise on the naval ship The Princeton. They, along with Dolly Madison, were invited by the widower President Tyler who also was on board. At sea there was a great tragedy. A cannon ball exploded killing her father and the secretaries of State and the Navy. The president and Julia and Dolly Madison survived. It was at this time, devastated by her father’s death, that she accepted the empathetic company and encouragement from Tyler. The following June they “eloped” and were married in an Episcopal church in New York City. Only twelve guests attended. She was twenty-four. He was fifty-four.

Julia Tyler was a truly compassionate First Lady and took advantage of her position tio help others. . Her fame made her very approachable. She influenced her husband and his cabinet to grant executive clemencies, presidential pardons (when she deemed them worthy), and even military leaves. She considered her greatest accomplishment to have been the major catalyst in his successful campaign for the annexation of Texas. Her grand finale was when, on 18 February 1845, at the close of her husband’s term in office, she hosted a goodbye gala for three thousand invited guests. Some one thousand candles were said to be burned and ninety-six bottles of champagne consumed. And, of course, there was continuous music and waltzing.

After the end of his term, the Tylers moved to Sherwood Forest, their plantation in Virginia. They lived a quiet life until around 1853 when Julia permitted the publication of a letter she had written to some women of nobility in England who had petitioned prominent women of American southern states to fight for the abolition of slavery in the U.S. That missive, “To the Duchess of Sutherland and the Ladies of England,” was first published on 28 January 1853  Julia did not attempt in the letter to justify slavery as an institution, but she did attempt to highlight some of the issues that needed to be considered before granting immediate emancipation. She pointed out that the process of emancipation was moving along gradually and, in Virginia, rapidly. Too, that in Virginia there was no more selling of individual slaves from one slave owner to another. It had been outlawed. She also could have pointed out (I am only conjecturing here as I do not have the full letter at hand) that many slaves were happy working and living on the plantations which had been their home for decades. They had a security that they would not have moving north to so-called free states. Employment security, for one thing. I say “so-called” because in many of those states (Massachusetts and Ohio, for instance, and a few others) free Negroes from other states were barred from permanent residence. They could only stay in some of these northern states for a matter of a few weeks and, if they were caught as “illegals” after that, they would be thrown into prison. By this time, in the last decade before the Civil War, and before the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), there were a growing number of free ex-slaves, many more than in the prior decade. Finally, in this letter, she was not remiss in educating these Ladies of England about their own nation’s injustices: first, that slavery had been introduced in the U.S. by the English; and, second, that the condition of the persecuted Catholic Irish in their own homeland under over two hundred years of British occupation (she also noted the deplorable conditions of the poor factory workers in London) was worse than that of Negro slaves in America. And so on and so forth.

The Tylers did return to D.C. in 1861 for a Peace Conference to which John was summoned. It was a final attempt to prevent a war between the States. Julia Tyler strenuously defended her husband’s advocating secession. By this time he had also accepted a seat as a member of the Confederate States of America’s provisional Congress. However, he died several days after the Confederate Congress’ first convened in Richmond. His coffin was covered by the Confederate flag and attended by the Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

A decade after her husband’s death Julia returned to Washington and lived in an apartment. She, even after the Civil War, was always welcome in the capital,  She befriended and counseled succeeding First Ladies Lucy Hayes and Rose Cleveland, and maintained a correspondence with Lucretia Garfield.

Julia Tyler’s Conversion

One of the reasons she left Virginia in 1872 was because of financial problems dealing with her estate. Before returning to Sherwood Forest, which by now, in 1876, was under the executor-ship of her eldest son David, Julia and her twelve year-old daughter Pearl entered the Catholic Church. That was in May 1872. For the next seventeen years until her death at sixty-nine years of age in July 1889, Mrs. John Tyler became a fervent advocate for the Catholic Church  Due to her prestige and nobility many women wrote to her for advice on seeking refuge and consolation in the Catholic religion. She became, as some said of her, “a zealot” for Catholicism.

I was not able to find any particular facts concerning exactly why she converted. Was there a priest who directed her? I would assume there was. Could it be the good influence of Catholic culture that she found while traveling throughout Europe (and Ireland) in the early 1840s ( we do know that the appalling condition of the Irish in their homeland at that time had a strong impact on her)?  Perhaps it was her audience with Pope Gregory whose papal ring she kissed? All that is mentioned is that she found succor in the Church and healing from her heavy crosses. That’s quite good enough, is it not?

I will conclude with the obituary from the New York Times detailing her funeral and the eulogy of the bishop-elect of Richmond, Augustine Van der Vyver:

“He spoke of her worth as a wife and mother, her devotion as a child of the Church and as one who had filled the highest position of the land alloted to her sex with signal ability. No less conspicuous had she been in private life where her worth and her virtues had won for her the love of all who knew her. Although summoned suddenly, she met death without fear, as she had made her peace with God and died with the full assurance of eternal happiness. She was justly admired for the great qualities of her mind and heart. He said that as the world had honored her while living, the Church honored her remains not on account of any social or worldly distinction, but because those remains were once the temple of God, and as the Church prayed for the living to bear patiently their trials and afflictions, so the Church prayed for her soul that God in His mercy would give it rest.”

Father Charles E. Donohoe offered the Requiem Mass and accompanied the funeral procession to the cemetery. It was, at that time, one of the largest ever seen in Richmond.