Miller Center

Julia Gardiner Tyler - First Lady

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Julia Gardiner Tyler was not only used to attention, she reveled in it. The beautiful daughter of a prominent New York family, she quickly became the darling of Washington society. Congressmen wooed her, but it was the widowed President Tyler, thirty years her senior, who won her. Thus at twenty-four, Julia Gardiner became Mrs. John Tyler, captivating Americans with her beauty, gaiety, and love of public adulation. She was their "Lovely Lady Presidentress," and while serving only eight months in the role, she left a legacy that endured. She was, in fact, determined to leave her mark as a social hostess. She wrote after her marriage that "this winter I intend to do something in the way of entertaining that shall be the admiration and talk of all the Washington world." She succeeded; thousands flocked to her grand receptions and socials to see their "Lady Presidentress." And what a sight she was. The First Lady, dressed lavishly in a long-trained gown and a peacock-feathered headdress, sat on a platform with her maids of honor to receive formally announced guests. Such European opulence and rigid protocol appeared elsewhere throughout the White House as Julia plied her guests with expensive wines and food, and outfitted coachmen and footmen in the elegant livery characteristic of the French court of Louis Philippe. She hostessed some of the most successful entertainments Washington had ever seen and waltzed and polkaed her way through many an event, having convinced her husband that dancing was not immoral. Julia Tyler was unquestionably the most popular social figure in Washington. Musicians composed waltzes in her honor, women strove to copy her stylish fashions, and a smitten President indulged her whims. But while social popularity was important to Julia, it was not merely an end in and of itself; she saw it as a means to accomplish political aims important to her husband -- and thus, to her. Julia guaranteed favorable press of her husband's administration by courting journalists and reporters. She frequently dined with members of the government -- some of whom had been her former admirers -- to lobby them, on behalf of friends and family, for certain government appointments. Congressmen, Supreme Court justices, and cabinet officials often bowed to Julia's powers of persuasion, which she used in full measure to fulfill her husband's main political objective: the annexation of Texas. Julia's sources kept her informed of important legislation regarding the issue of Texas, and when the matter came up for debate in the House, she was a visible presence in the visitors' gallery. Julia Tyler's support of Texas statehood was so well known that in the minds of many contemporaries she was just as associated with the issue as the President.

But it was Julia's gay entertaining that will continue to define her tenure, especially given the massive Grand Finale Ball she threw before John Tyler left office. Three thousand guests squeezed into the presidential mansion to drink champagne and see the beautifully dressed Julia Tyler dance with government officials and the ambassadors of five different countries. It was a fitting farewell for a woman who was so adored by the public, and who adored that public in return.

Julia Gardiner Tyler was probably the most popular presidential spouse since another "Lady Presidentress" had reigned. Dolley Madison -- from whom Julia sought advice -- had certainly been a favorite with the people, but it was Julia Tyler who openly accepted the public's affection, receiving their gifts, reading their letters, and considering their requests for everything from patronage to amnesty. Julia's personal popularity and her social triumphs lent further visibility to the role of presidential spouse. But while she translated her social popularity into political power, she used it to advance her husband's political agenda-one that she had made her own. For like other nineteenth-century wives, Julia's political interests reflected those of her husband. Indeed, it would be another century before First Ladies openly expressed views that conflicted with the policies of the President. Until then, future presidential spouses would build on Julia Tyler's legacy, further imbuing the role with prestige and importance.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

William Freehling

Professor Freehling is a senior fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the emeritus Singletary Professor of the Humanities at the University of Kentucky. His writings include:

The Road to Disunion, 1776–1861 (2 volumes; Oxford University Press, 1990 and 2007)

The Reintegration of American History: Slavery and the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1994)

Prelude to Civil War: the Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836 (Oxford University Press, 1992)