Why Julia Tyler is Known as the Most Scandalous First Lady in American History
Julia Gardiner Tyler, the second wife of John Tyler and First Lady of the United States from 1844 to 1845, was certainly no shrinking violet.
In fact, this strong-willed, opinionated woman played an important political and social role in American politics during her brief tenure in the White House. However, she also earned herself a scandalous reputation.
According to the White House Historical Association, Julia Gardiner was born in May 1820 into an elegant, high society family on a private island just off the coast of Long Island. From an early age, she was expected to perform the role and duties of a society daughter: that is, to marry well and sustain a respectable, gentle image.
Entering the New York scene as a striking and beautiful young socialite, Julia appeared to set to fulfill her parents’ wishes. However, at the age of 19, she did the unthinkable and posed as a model for an advertisement for a middle-class clothing emporium.
According to History, she appeared in a lithograph on the arm of an older man, brandishing a handbag and parasol, alongside the caption “The Rose of Long Island”.
Posing as a model was not considered to be a respectable occupation for a young lady of high society, and Julia’s parents were outraged. The advertisement was well publicized and she soon earned a following. To avoid the scandal, her parents took her on a lengthy tour of Europe, in the hopes that her reputation would be allowed to recover.
However, on her return to the United States and her reintegration into New York society, Julia soon caused further scandal. She was a vivacious, beautiful young woman, and quickly earned a reputation as a flirt. In the winter of 1841, she received several offers of marriage and is rumored to have had affairs with a number of prominent young men.
One of these men was the son of the President, John Tyler Jr. In New York, Julia and John Jr. engaged in a brief flirtation, but she soon came to the attention of his recently widowed father. The elder Tyler instantly became infatuated with Julia, and pursued her for several years.
They spent a large amount of time together, and in 1843, he proposed marriage for the first time. However, Julia declined. The President was 30 years her senior and she felt little attraction to him.
However, this was to change in February 1844, when the Gardiner family were invited by the President to a pleasure cruise on board the USS Princeton down the Potomac River.
According to the White House Historical Association, Julia’s father, along with six others, was killed in an explosion as they passed the testing ground for a new naval gun. Julia was devastated at the loss of her father, and the family’s position became extremely precarious.
She would later remark that the President’s support and presence during this time was of great comfort to her, and gradually, their relationship developed. She finally agreed to marry him and they were wed in June 1844, in a secret ceremony. Julia had married into the position of First Lady and was immediately installed in the White House.
Tyler’s second marriage caused a scandal. His new wife already had a reputation as a flirt, and the President was only relatively recently widowed. Their marriage was not announced until after it had taken place, in a secret ceremony with only 12 guests in attendance.
However, Julia soon became accustomed to her new role. She adored the pomp and ritual associated with her position as First Lady, and she began to develop increasingly monarchical tendencies.
She appointed ladies-in-waiting and threw grand receptions and balls. During her brief time as First Lady she instituted a number of honorific rituals that persisted long after she left, including the use of the anthem “Hail to the Chief” whenever the President arrived.
Even after she left the White House, Julia continued to cause scandal. Despite being a northerner by birth, she (along with her husband) sided with the Confederates during the Civil War, and wrote a staunch defense of slavery in the New York Times in 1853.
Although she moved back to New York after the death of her husband, rumors that she persisted in keeping a Confederate flag at her home provoked the ire of Union veterans. Her position was extremely precarious until she successfully lobbied for a pension to be granted to widowed wives of former Presidents.
Despite her reputation, Julia was well liked and admired and stayed in the public eye until the end of her life. She was a fixture on the New York social scene and certainly did not shy away from expressing unpopular opinions. Always controversial, Julia Tyler nevertheless goes down in history as one of the White House’s most fascinating inhabitants.