One of the most complicated legacies in presidential history is that of John Tyler, our tenth president. Elected to the vice presidency in 1840, he became president in April 1841, when President William Henry Harrison died a mere month into his term.
While the 12th Amendment had modified the Constitution so that presidents and vice presidents would run together on one ticket, the document had never fully laid out the duties of the vice president or the rules of succession.
(Amazingly, those rules would not be codified until the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967.)
So, when Harrison died, Tyler assumed the presidency -- against the wishes of just about everyone in Washington, including his own party, the Whigs, who kicked him out. He was pejoratively known as "His Accidency" instead of "His Excellency" and most politically minded Americans probably thought he'd serve as lame duck throughout his entire term.
Tyler, meanwhile, was dealing with personal tragedy. In September 1842, his wife Letitia died in the White House of a stroke, and his daughter-in-law, actress Priscilla Cooper Tyler, took on the role of White House hostess and de facto
Tyler, then age 52, soon began wooing Julia Gardiner -- age 22 -- the daughter of David Gardiner, a wealthy New York attorney and scion of the famous Gardiner family of Long Island.
As we write in Inside the Apple,
a rebellious and bored young woman. In 1840, she appeared in a handbill advertisement for Bogert & Mecamley, a dry goods store. Julia stands clutching a handbag that is actually a sign:
I’ll purchase at Bogert & Mecamley’s, number 86 Ninth Avenue. Their goods are beautiful and astonishingly cheap.
Julia’s family was horrified. Not only was she shilling for a middle-class department store while wearing a gaudy frock, she was doing it on the arm of a man who was not a male relative. Of all the social faux pas in Victorian New York, the unchaperoned female was high on the list.
Julia was immediately sent to Europe to learn her social graces. Soon upon her return, she met President Tyler—who was less than five months a widower—and the two began an oblique romance. Within a few weeks, he had proposed to her. Julia demurred [ed: or, more likely, her parents did], but Tyler was not easily dissuaded. In February 1844, Tyler invited Julia and her father, David, to see the first demonstration of the U.S. Navy’s new twelve-inch gun, the “Peacemaker.”
The "Peacemaker" and the ship that bore it, the Princeton
, were the brainchild of John Ericsson, the inventor of the screw propeller who would also go on to also design the ironclad warship. The "Peacemaker" was designed to give the US Navy an edge against older, bigger, and better trained fleets. Tyler invited a host of dignitaries for the Princeton
's inaugural run up the Potomac, including David Gardiner and Julia. Perhaps Tyler thought that including the Gardiners in what was supposed to be the biggest triumph of his presidency would bring Julia's father around.
But what started as a joyful and patriotic day ended, in the words of one participant in "scenes of death, and disaster, of lamentation and unutterable woe" when the "Peacemaker"exploded in the breech.
Tyler was on his way topside from having been with Julia below deck when the accident happened. Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Navy Secretary Thomas W. Gilmer were killed instantly, as was David Gardiner. It was, by all accounts, a gruesome scene.
Four months later,
Julia and the President were married at a secret ceremony at the Church of the Ascension, near the Gardiners’ New York City residence on Lafayette Place. Tyler was loath to tell his children about the wedding. His eldest daughter, Mary, was five years older than Julia, who was 24—and the President was himself only nine years older than Julia’s mother.
However, word soon spread of the nuptials—not least because Julia took Washington by storm, spending her nine months as First Lady in a whirl of social engagements and state functions. She established new, more rigid protocols (including the tradition that “Hail to the Chief” be played every time the President made an appearance) and catapulted herself into a lifetime career as Former First Lady Julia Tyler.
Julia and John Tyler left the White House in 1845, and she bore him numerous children. Amazingly their son Lyon Gardiner Tyler (born 1853) still has two living sons -- which means that President John Tyler, who was born in 1790, George Washington's first full year in office, has grandchildren that are still alive.
and don't forget our first book with the story of John and Julia Tyler