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Daughter of Juliana McLachlan and David Gardiner, descendant of prominent and wealthy New York families, Julia was trained from earliest childhood for a life in society; she made her debut at 15. A European tour with her family gave her new glimpses of social splendors. Late in 1842 the Gardiners went to Washington, DC for the winter social season, and Julia became the undisputed darling of the capital. Her beauty and her practiced charm attracted the most eminent men in the city, among them President Tyler, a widower since September.
Julia, her sister Margaret, and her father joined a Presidential excursion on the new steam frigate Princeton; and David Gardiner lost his life in the explosion of a huge naval gun. Tyler comforted Julia in her grief and won her consent to a secret engagement. The first President to marry in office took his vows in New York on June 26, 1844. The news was then broken to the American people, who greeted it with keen interest, much publicity, and some criticism about the couple's difference in age of 30 years.
As the new Mrs. Tyler said herself, she "reigned" as First Lady for the last eight months of her husband's term. Wearing white satin or black lace to obey the conventions of mourning, she enjoyed her position immensely, and filled it with grace. For receptions she revived the formality of the Van Buren administration; she welcomed guests with plumes in her hair, attended by maids of honor dressed in white. She once declared, with truth: "Nothing appears to delight the President more than...to hear people sing my praises."
After the Tylers' retired to their home at Sherwood Forest in Virginia, she bore five of her seven children; and she acted as mistress of the plantation until the Civil War. As such, she defended both states' rights and the institution of slavery. John Tyler died in 1862.
Even as a refugee in New York, she devoted herself to volunteer work for the Confederacy. Its defeat found her impoverished. Not until 1958 would federal law provide automatic pensions for Presidential widows; but Congress in 1870 voted a pension for Mary Lincoln, and Julia Tyler used this precedent in seeking help. In December 1880 Congress voted her $1,200 a year -- and after Garfield's assassination it passed bills to grant uniform amounts of $5,000 annually to Mrs. Garfield, Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Polk, and Mrs. Tyler. Living out her last years comfortably in Richmond, Virginia, Julia died there in 1889 and was buried there at her husband's side.