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Letitia Tyler - First Lady

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By 1841, Letitia Christian Tyler, victim of a paralytic stroke, was an invalid. Yet her poor physical health, which she had endured for two years, did not prevent her from overseeing the finances of her family's successful Virginia plantation. In fact, it was Letitia's business acumen that allowed husband John Tyler to pursue his political ambitions full time. When he was elected vice president in 1840, Tyler intended to fulfill his few duties from their home in Williamsburg, a concession he made to his wife's fragile condition. That changed when he became President upon William Henry Harrison's death. As a result, both husband and wife took up residence in the White House.

Letitia never held receptions or entertained, leaving those duties to her daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler, who consulted Dolley Madison -- her neighbor and frequent guest -- for advice. The beautiful Priscilla, who had charmed audiences during her career as an actress, continued to captivate citizens and celebrities alike in her new role as presidential hostess. She embraced her hostessing duties, holding two formal dinners a week when Congress was in session, providing biweekly evening receptions which were open to the public, and inviting as many as a thousand guests to her monthly parties. She opened up the White House on both New Year's Day and the Fourth of July, and initiated summer Marine Band concerts on the south lawn of the White House.

Although Priscilla Tyler assumed the bulk of the hostessing responsibilities, Letitia Tyler's daughters, Elizabeth Tyler and Letitia Tyler Semple, also performed some of those functions. It was the latter daughter who became White House hostess upon Priscilla's relocation to Philadelphia in 1844.

In the face of her physical limitations and deteriorating health, Letitia Tyler still managed to assume many of the duties traditionally borne by the President's "Lady" -- directing the White House social calendar, greeting callers, making visitors feel at home, and advising her husband on political affairs. Yet she did not perform the important and visible jobs associated with hostessing, nor did she direct a much-needed refurbishment of the White House; after only a year-and-a-half in the executive mansion, Letitia Christian Tyler died. During that time, her only public appearance was at her daughter Elizabeth's 1842 White House wedding. Even without the limitations posed by her stroke, Letitia Tyler -- reclusive by nature -- would have likely been a reluctant hostess. Moreover, she probably would have enlisted others to handle the entertaining in her stead.

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)