Jan. 21, 2023

Explosive Love: The USS Princeton & Julia Gardiner Tyler

Explosive Love: The USS Princeton & Julia Gardiner Tyler

Widowed while in office, John Tyler remarried just a few short years after his wife passed at the age of 51.

Though he'd been courting Julia Gardiner for several months, it was a catastrophic accident aboard the warship the USS Princeton that prompted Julia to reconsider.

So just what happened on board the USS Princeton? And how did it lead to marital bliss? Tune in to find out.

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Black, Allida Mae.The First Ladies of the United States of America. (United States: White House Historical Association, 2009). Accessed online (LINK)

Cohen, Jared.Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America. (United States: Simon & Schuster, 2019).

Crapol, Edward P..John Tyler, the Accidental President.(United States: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

“First Lady Biography: Julia Gardiner Tyler.” National First Ladies Library. (LINK)

“Princeton 1 (Screw Steamer),” Naval History and Heritage Command. Oct 22, 2015. (LINK)

Shafer, Ronald G, “An explosion on the USS Princeton led to President John Tyler’s marriage,” The Washington Post. February 14, 2022. (LINK)

“The Opening to China Part I: the First Opium War, the United States, and the Treaty of Wangxia, 1839–1844,” The Office of the Historian. (LINK)

Walters, Kerry.Explosion on the Potomac: The 1844 Calamity Aboard the USS Princeton.


Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. 



Hey everyone, welcome back. 


As I mentioned last week, tenth president John Tyler was a twice-married man, losing his first wife Letitia after a series of strokes in 1842. The story of his second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler, is filled with all of the dramatic plot points one expects from a soap opera. There is death, family feuds, and a whole lot of children. 


Given the event that crystallized their romance, I thought I’d spend today talking both about the second Mrs. Tyler as well as the catastrophic event that brought them together - the explosion of the USS Princeton. 


So who was Julia Gardiner? And what about the explosion of a naval ship made her swoon over a man thirty years her senior?


Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this. 


To provide a quick recap - John Tyler lost his first wife Letitia while serving as President in 1842 and became a widower. Severely paralyzed due to previous strokes, Letitia delegated a majority of the White House Hostess duties to her daughter-in-law Priscilla who continued in her position until leaving with her husband in 1844. Tyler's daughter Letty stepped in, serving for just a few months before Tyler remarried. 


The President likely met his soon-to-be second wife, Julia Gardiner, when she visited the White House with her family in January 1842. Coming from a wealthy, slave-owning family in New York, Julia received a proper education, obtaining training at the Madame Chagaray Institute for Young Ladies in New York. 


Born on either May 4, or July 23rd, 1820, Julia Gardiner was the third of four children born to her father, David Gardiner, a lawyer, and her mother, Juliana McLachlan Gardiner. In a change of norms, it appears as though upon their union, it was Juliana who held the vast real estate holdings, management of which came under David’s purview upon their wedding. 


Young Julia was trained for society, making her official debut at the age of 15. From contemporary accounts, Julia seemed to enjoy and welcome the attention she received and was well adept at handling the various political personalities. Her love of adulation might have prompted her to secretly pose for a lithograph advertisement for Bogert and Mecamly’s, a well-known department store. This is considered the first known commercial endorsement by a prominent woman in the history of New York. Considering her station as an elite young woman looking for a suitor, her decision to pose for the lithograph was considered highly controversial and humiliating. 


Perhaps in response, Julia and her family journeyed to Europe, leaving New York in 1840. Her tour seems quite extensive, with visits to England, France, Italy, and Germany, to name a few. She also apparently had the pleasure of an audience with Pope Leo before returning to the United States in 1841. 


Despite meeting her future husband months before Mrs. Tyler’s death, it seems as though no courting occurred until several months later and Julia was apparently initially uneasy with the idea of the relationship, perhaps taking pause at their significant age difference. 


Whatever the reason for her hesitation, she seemed to change her mind after one catastrophic event forever altered her life. 


On February 28, 1844, the recently commissioned warship, the U.S.S Princeton, was entertaining guests while making a trial cruise along the Potomac River. The ship, commanded by Captain Robert F Stockton and had recently been fitted with two guns - the Oregon and, the world’s largest naval gun, the Peacemaker. 


The ship, part of President Tyler’s efforts to modernize the navy, was commissioned in September of 1843 and was built in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The ship measured an impressive 164 feet long and made several trial runs to ensure it was seaworthy before making sail for Washington, D.C. There is some disagreement over how many individuals were actually on board that February morning. According to the Naval History site, nearly 200 dignitaries and Washington elite were aboard the vessel - however, according to a Washington Post article covering the accident, nearly 400 were in attendance. 


Whatever the number, there are a few facts upon which everyone agrees: John Tyler and his entire cabinet were on board, as was famed former first lady, Dolley Madison. Also on board was Julia Gardiner, taking the early voyage with her father and sister Margaret. While the ship journeyed up the river, the captain made a display of the ship’s power, firing the massive Peacemaker several times. 


Apparently, the Peacemaker had already gone through several test firings and was a bit overheated. Despite this, there was a call to make a third firing of the canon. Tyler, who had been below deck, made his way toward the main deck to witness the magnificent power of the Peacemaker for the third time. By chance, Tyler decided at the last minute to stay below deck to, according to one source I read, listen to a song. This decision appeared to be life-saving as just a few moments later, the Peacemaker exploded, sending hot shrapnel in several directions. 


Imagine for a moment, if you will, how the country would have reacted had Tyler been on deck and died. He was serving without a Vice President, remember, and it would have marked the death of two presidents within three years of each other. Without a Vice President for the post to fall to, the Constitution stated Congress would elect an officer to hold the position until such time a president could be elected. The line of succession was not yet agreed upon and it would take another hundred years for Congress to pass the twenty-fifth amendment. However, with the Whig party still in control of Congress, I sometimes wonder whether Henry Clay would have finally got his hands on the position if history had turned out differently.


But, as we know, Tyler managed to survive, however, the explosion proved deadly for six others. Two cabinet members - Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer died in the accident. Thus, the explosion on board the USS Princeton went down in history for killing the most U.S. government officials in a single day. The explosion also took the life of Tyler’s enslaved valet, Armistead, Captain Beverley Kennon, and David Gardiner, Julia’s father. 


In the aftermath of the chaos, Julia apparently fainted and was carried off board the ship by the President. Midway down the gangplank, Julia awoke and in a panic, nearly knocked her and the president into the water. Looking back at the incident later, Julia later said quote, “I did not know at the time that it was the President whose life I almost consigned to the water,” end quote. The accident of course made national news, with headlines declaring Narrow Escape of the President and Most Awful and Lamentable Catastrophe. 


The accident brought Tyler and Gardiner close together and they began seeing more of each other, though they tried to keep it discreet. It was the President’s acts of kindness in the aftermath of losing her father that made Julia reconsider President Tyler’s overtures. Despite their age difference, Julia accepted Tyler’s proposal, and the two were secretly wed in New York on June 16, 1844. She was twenty-four; he was fifty-four. 


In describing why she chose a man so much her senior, the second Mrs. Tyler said quote, “after I lost my father, I felt differently toward the president. He seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man ever was or could be,” end quote. Their union marked the first time a United States President married in office. Together, the couple would have seven children, making Tyler the leader in the number of presidential offspring. The marriage was not announced until after the ceremony and was not well received by at least one of Tyler’s children. His daughter Letitia never warmed to Julia and it apparently caused quite a rift between her and her father.  


Despite the family drama, the second Mrs. Tyler seemed to be a major departure from her predecessor in many ways. Young and without disabilities, Julia was an outgoing and charming hostess. Fond of the formal receptions she witnessed on our family trip to Europe, Julia decided to bring back a sense of opulence with White House receptions. She reinstituted reception protocols, a call back to former First Lady Louisa Adams, and plied her guests with fine food and wine. Unlike during Mrs. Adams’ tenure, the Washington elite seemed to enjoy the formal receptions, lauding Tyler’s gifts as hostess. She was known as the Lovely Lady Presidentress and rivaled the likes of prior First Lady Dolley Madison in popularity. Her popularity further increased the visibility of the president’s spouse. Mrs. Tyler recognized the potential influence of her admiration, leveraging her role as First Lady to work on her husband’s behalf to secure political victories. She also charmed those in power to secure government posts for friends and family. 


The second Mrs. Tyler was very supportive of her spouse, apparently always referring to her husband as The President. Always the first to celebrate his wins, the First Lady could not contain her happiness after the signing of the Treaty of Wangxia in 1844. Writing to her mother quote: “The Chinese treaty is accomplished - Hurrah! The documents came in today and will be sent to the Capitol in a few days. I thought the President would go off in an ecstasy a minute ago with the pleasant news,” end quote. The treaty that generated so much excitement secured trading access with China and mirrored a similar treaty the country signed with Great Britain in the aftermath of the First Opium War. 


She also was a big proponent of Texas annexation, frequently deploying her charm to gain support for the measure. In the run-up to Tyler’s final days in office, the First Lady threw a Grand Finale Ball for nearly 3,000 guests. This ball was so opulent and successful it is considered the crown jewel in her legacy as hostess. 


As Tyler ended up a one-term president, a majority of their married life occurred post-presidency. Accepting his political future in the upcoming presidential election, John Tyler pulled his name from the race and retired to a plantation nicknamed Sherwood Forest in Virginia. There the couple had the first five of their children, starting with a son, David Gardiner who was born on July 12th, 1846. The last of their children, Pearl, lived to the ripe old age of 87, dying in 1947 when Harry Truman was president. 


As I mentioned in Tyler’s episode, once the president left office, he was pretty much treated as a pariah. Living in a Whig-dominated community, he was appointed to an office to oversee roads to mock him. Ever the committed statesman, he took his job seriously. The couple seemed to share similar political beliefs, with Mrs. Tyler publishing an open letter defending slavery in 1853 as the country inched closer to Civil War. When the nation did finally split, Mrs. Tyler encouraged her sons to fight for the confederacy and volunteered for confederate causes. 


Like most political wives, Mrs. Tyler experienced economic hardship after the death of her husband in 1862. In 1870, building off the precedent set by the widowed Mrs. Lincoln, the former First Lady petitioned Congress for a pension, successfully securing an annual payment of $1,200. This was increased to $5,000 a year after President Garfield’s assassination in 1881, when Congress authorized several widow pensions, including Mrs. Tyler, Mrs. Garfield, Mrs. Lincoln, and Mrs. Polk. 


Julia Gardiner Tyler passed away on July 10, 1889, at the age of 68 or 69, depending on when her birthday was. In a bit of irony, she and her husband died from the same ailment - a stroke - at the same place - the Exchange Hotel. She was buried next to her husband at the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. The president’s first wife, Letitia Christian Tyler, was buried separately at Cedar Grove Cemetery in New Kent County, Virginia. 


Despite her limited time in position, Julia Gardiner left quite the legacy for the role of First Lady. Her comfort with the spotlight and ability to charm her husband’s guests served to ingratiate her to the men in power and further elevated the public role of First Lady. Her decision to introduce the formality she witnessed in Europe brought a sense of protocol future First Ladies built upon. 


The deadly explosion of the USS Princeton had many long-lasting impacts. It took the lives of six individuals, including two members of the cabinet. It caused the delay of Tyler’s push to further modernize the Navy. But it also pushed Julia Gardiner to accept the President’s proposal and become one of the most treasured and influential first ladies of her time. 


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Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.


Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.