by Helen E. McLure
President John Tyler finds true love in the wake of a gruesome tragedy. But can this May-December romance survive the wrath of his children and stand the test of time?
John Tyler married his first wife, Letitia, in 1813, and they had eight children. She suffered from a chronic illness and died from a stroke in 1842, a year after Vice-President Tyler unexpectedly became President.
Julia Gardiner was about twenty-years old in 1840 when she began making long visits to Washington, D.C. during the “social season.” Her father, David Gardiner, was hoping she would catch a wealthy and well-connected husband.
Julia was invited to the White House and John Tyler, Jr., the President’s son, fell deeply in love with her.
However, Julia caught the President’s eye, too. (Awkward! But apparently John, Jr. just faded discreetly into the background). John, Sr. soon was infatuated with the much younger woman, and even wrote love poetry for her.
President Tyler asked Julia to marry him. But his first wife had been dead for only five months. During the nineteenth century, spouses were expected to mourn for their deceased partners for a respectable length of time. Julia (and/or her family) realized that a hasty new marriage would not be a good look for a new First Lady. And there was that thirty-year age difference between them. She declined his proposal. He kept asking, and she kept turning him down.
In 1843, a new steam-powered frigate called the U.S.S. Princeton was the pride of the United States Navy (pictured below). The ship made its maiden voyage down the Potomac River on February 28, 1844.
Aboard the ship were many elite and powerful people, including President Tyler, David Gardiner, and his daughter, Julia. The passengers dined on roast chicken, ham, and champagne as the frigate steamed down the river. We don’t know what this festive scene looked like, but the picture below may give a general idea:
The frigate also boasted two new cannons, the largest cannons in the world at the time. They were called the Orator and the Peacemaker. (The picture below is the same general type, called the “Stockton Gun.”) During the Princeton’s voyage along the Potomac, the ship’s crew fired the Peacemaker twice, to the cheers of all on board.
As the frigate steamed past George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, somebody had the brilliant idea of firing the Peacemaker one final time to honor the first President.
The wrought-iron weapon was fatally flawed, however. The Peacemaker exploded, hurling pieces of the cannon at nearby passengers and turning the deck of the Princeton into a slaughterhouse.
Eight people were killed, including the Secretary of State and Secretary of the Navy, who died instantly. Twenty other people were horribly injured. The explosion blew off both arms and legs of Julia’s father, David Gardiner. He bled to death within a few minutes. Miraculously, Tyler and Julia were both below deck and completely unhurt.
When she learned that her father was dead, Julia fainted. Tyler swooped her up and cradled her unconscious body in his arms as the ship steamed for shore. At this point, she said later, her feelings for him changed dramatically.
John and Julia were married in a secret ceremony in New York four months later, in June, 1844. Tyler was 54 years old and Julia was 23. In fact, she was five years younger than Tyler’s oldest daughter from his first marriage. We don’t have any videos or photos of the happy event, so the picture below shows how a typical antebellum wedding might have looked:
Tyler had promised his children just weeks before the wedding that he would never marry again. Nobody informed them that they would be getting a new stepmother until after the ceremony was over. Several of his daughters were outraged that he had remarried so soon after the death of their mother – and to a woman young enough to be their sister. Tyler’s oldest daughter, Letitia, never forgave him or Julia for the rest of her life.
After his one term as President concluded, John and Julia retired to his Virginia plantation, called Sherwood Forest (photo below). President Tyler ultimately fathered fifteen children, far more than any other President: 8 by Letitia and 7 by Julia. His youngest daughter, Mary, was born when he was seventy years old.
Cormac O’Brien, Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents: What Your Teachers Never Told You about the Men of the White House (Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books, 2004), 61-62.
“First Lady Biography: Julia Tyler.” The National First Ladies' Library. http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=11
Craig Swain, “The Stockton Gun,” August 5, 2008. https://markerhunter.wordpress.com/2008/08/05/the-stockton-gun/