John Tyler is not usually cited as an influential president, but he does hold a unique distinction in American history: he was the first chief executive to marry while in office. In 1843, just a few months after the death of his first wife, the 52-year-old President entered into a passionate courtship with a much younger socialite named Julia Gardiner. The May-December romance only intensified after Gardiner’s father was killed in a tragic steamship accident in 1844, and despite criticisms in Washington, the couple later tied the knot in a secret wedding ceremony.
Even before he began wooing a woman 30 years his junior, John Tyler had already endured a tumultuous start to his term as president. The former Virginia senator had been elected vice president as part of William Henry Harrison’s famed “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” ticket, but had ascended to the presidency after Harrison’s sudden death in April 1841. Tyler was the first vice president in American history to succeed a deceased commander in chief, but his transition had been anything but smooth. Critics considered him a mere caretaker president—they even dubbed him “His Accidency”—and nearly every member of his cabinet resigned after he vetoed legislation to establish a new national bank. Tyler, a onetime Democrat who had joined the Whigs, was eventually cast aside by both parties. An even bigger blow followed in September 1842, when his wife Letitia died after suffering a stroke.
Tyler was racked by grief after the death of the First Lady, but it only took a few months before he became smitten with a charming new visitor to the White House. The object of his affection was Julia Gardiner, a wealthy New York socialite whose family owned a 3,300-acre island near East Hampton. At 22, Gardiner had a reputation as a vivacious, free-spirited woman. As a teenager in New York, she had secretly arranged to appear as a model in a lithograph advertisement for a Manhattan department store. The ad had proved shocking to her aristocratic parents, who promptly spirited her away on a tour of Europe. Nevertheless, the incident had earned her an alluring nickname: the “Rose of Long Island.”
Gardiner arrived in Washington in late 1842 to take part in the winter social season, and it wasn’t long before she counted several judges and U.S. congressmen among her would-be suitors. “The Rose of Long Island” earned an even more high profile admirer on the night of February 7, 1843, when she traveled to the White House for a small party. The raven-haired beauty instantly caught Tyler’s eye, and he spent much of the evening chatting and playing cards with her. By the end of the night, the usually reserved President even felt bold enough to give both Julia and her sister Margaret a goodbye kiss.
Tyler’s interest in Gardiner only grew over the next few days. He invited the sisters to stop by the executive mansion on their way to a party, and he fed the Washington, D.C. rumor mill by walking their family home from church. “Many jokes are already being passed around about our being in such favor at the White House,” Julia’s mother wrote in a letter. By February 22, the President could no longer hide his affection. During a dress ball honoring George Washington’s birthday, he stole Gardiner away from a dance partner, led her on a tour of the White House and formally proposed marriage. Julia was shocked. “I had never thought of love,” she later remembered, “so I said ‘No, no, no’ and shook my head with each word, which flung the tassel of my Greek cap into his face with every move.”
Despite the rejection, Tyler didn’t give up his pursuit of Gardiner. He continued to see her family socially, and eventually repeated his marriage proposal in front of her parents, who were delighted but also concerned about the couple’s large age gap. Julia later left Washington for the summer without formally accepting, but her attraction to the lanky, sharp-featured President was growing. She later remembered being taken by the “incomparable grace of his bearing, and the elegant ease of his conversation,” and she eagerly exchanged letters with him over the summer. In one, Tyler described her as his “fairy girl” and scribbled several verses of romantic poetry.
While a marriage between the 10th president and the “Rose of Long Island” seemed to be on the horizon, it ultimately took a tragedy to help seal the deal. On February 28, 1844, when the Gardiners were once again in Washington, Tyler invited them to a party aboard a U.S. Navy frigate called the USS Princeton. As the ship steamed down the Potomac, the President’s 400 guests were entertained by several test-firings of the “Peacemaker,” a mammoth, 13-ton naval gun that lobbed 225-pound cannonballs. The first few salvos went off without a hitch, but when the gun was fired a final time at around 3 p.m., its breech exploded and sent metal shrapnel flying across the deck. Six people were killed including the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy. Tyler and Gardiner avoided injury, but when they rushed to the scene of the disaster, they discovered that Julia’s father David Gardiner was also among the dead. Julia was so distraught that she fainted, so a weeping President Tyler gathered her in his arms and carried her to a rescue ship.
In the aftermath of the Princeton disaster, Gardiner grew closer to Tyler and eventually agreed to marry him. “After I lost my father I felt differently toward the president,” she later said. “He seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man ever was or could be.” On June 26, 1844—less than four months after the explosion—the couple exchanged vows in a secret wedding ceremony in New York. At age 54, Tyler became the first commander in chief to marry while in office.
The President’s wedding to his 24-year-old bride met with a mixed reception in Washington. “Fortunate John Tyler!” joked the New York Commercial Advertiser. “To bear away the prize for which so many younger and handsomer men have sighed in vain…” Others were more hostile. Former President John Quincy Adams wrote that the newlyweds were “the laughing-stock of the city” and argued that Tyler, “under circumstances of revolting indecency, is performing with a young girl from New York the old fable of January and May.” Another critic, the diarist George Templeton Strong, pronounced Tyler a “poor, unfortunate, deluded old jackass.”
For his part, Tyler seemed all but immune to the taunts of his opponents. He was still in dire political straits and had no hope of reelection, yet he was deeply in love with his new bride and was often seen cozying up to her in public. Julia, meanwhile, immediately made her mark as First Lady. In the remaining eight months of Tyler’s administration, the young socialite glitzed up the White House by hosting extravagant parties that featured champagne and polka dancing. She may have also helped cement a presidential tradition by insisting that the Marine Band play the song “Hail to the Chief” whenever her husband arrived at official functions. Always image conscious, Julia cultivated a celebrity mystique during her short time in the White House. She wore exotic clothing, traveled in a carriage pulled by Arabian horses, and appeared at balls flanked by a retinue of white-clad maids of honor. She even secured a publicity deal with a New York newspaper columnist, who took to calling her the “Lovely Lady Presidentress.”
After leaving the White House in March 1845, the Tylers settled into semi-retirement at the President’s Sherwood Forest plantation in Charles City, Virginia. Tyler would later court controversy by siding with the Confederacy during the Civil War, but the warmth never faded from his marriage. In a poem that she once wrote for Tyler’s birthday, Julia vowed that, “what e’er changes time may bring, I’ll love thee as thou art!”
John Tyler and Julia Gardiner Tyler eventually had seven children together, the last of whom was born in 1860, when the former President was 70. (Amazingly, two of the couple’s grandchildren were still living as of early 2017). Tyler later died in 1862, but although she was just 41 at the time, Julia never remarried. For the rest of her days, she continued to sign her letters as “Mrs. Ex-President Tyler.”