The first First Lady to die in the White House and the first of two wives of tenth President John Tyler, Letitia Tyler was pivotal in her husband's success.
Staying behind to manage their plantation and raise their large family, Letitia Tyler oversaw the finances and ensured the Tyler children were well cared for. Suffering a series of strokes, her time as First Lady was limited.
So just who was Letitia Tyler? Tune in to find out.
Black, Allida Mae.The First Ladies of the United States of America.(United States: White House Historical Association, 2009). Accessed via The White House. (LINK)
Costello, Matthew. “The Enslaved Households of President John Tyler.” White House Historical Association. January 3, 2020. (LINK)
“First Lady Biography: Letitia Christian Tyler.” National First Ladies Library. (LINK)
Freehling, William. “John Tyler: Family Life.” UVA Miller Center. (LINK)
Freehling, William. “Letitia Tyler.” UVA Miller Center. (LINK)
Gould, Lewis, ed.American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy.United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2014.
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.
A couple of weeks ago I shared the history of tenth president John Tyler. As I mentioned in his episode, I cut a lot out of his overall narrative given his expansive political career so I could focus on his presidency. You may have noticed I only briefly mentioned his first wife, Letitia. Of course, if you’ve been a fan of the show for any period of time then you likely knew what was coming. And you would be correct.
Like too many early first ladies, very little is known about the wife of John Tyler. She left behind no papers or diaries and as such, we are left with only a partial picture of just who she was and what she believed. Despite these challenges, I remain committed to sharing the stories of the women who made the political lives of their spouses possible.
So, this week, I am diving into the life of Letitia Tyler. Who was she? And what influence did she have as first lady?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Letitia Christian entered the world on November 20, 1790 and was the seventh of twelve children and the third of eight daughters. Her father, Robert Christian, was a successful planter, overseeing the Cedar Grove Plantation some twenty miles east of Richmond, Virginia. Her mother, Mary Browne Christian, likely helped run the house and oversee the care of the large family. Like many women of this era, very little is known about Letitia’s early life as she does not enter the historical record in any tangible sense until her marriage to John Tyler in 1813.
However, we can assume, given her birthplace, she was surrounded by enslaved individuals and likely received a modest education - representative of the experiences of other women of her station of the time period. Letitia was described as quite beautiful, yet very reserved. Considered an introvert by today’s vernacular, it is unclear how she and John Tyler began their courtship, only that it lasted nearly five years after their original meeting in 1808.
In one of the only known letters to survive between the couple, John Tyler seemed quite smitten with his bride to be, writing to her ahead of their wedding quote: “I exposed to you frankly and unblushingly my situation in life - my hopes and fears, my prospects and my dependencies - and you nobly responded. To ensure to you happiness is now my only object, and whether I float or sink in the stream of fortune, you may be assured of this, that I shall never cease to love you,” end quote.
The young couple married on Tyler’s twenty-third birthday, March 23rd, at Letitia’s family Cedar Grove estate. Tyler briefly left his new bride just four months into their marriage to participate in the War of 1812, but the two were soon reunited when his regiment failed to engage the enemy. Upon his return, the Tyler’s started what would become quite a large family and between 1815 and 1830, Letitia Tyler was either pregnant, nursing or caring for eight children. Their first child, a daughter named Mary, arrived in 1815. She was followed by Robert in 1816, John Jr in 1819, Letitia in 1821, Elizabeth in 1823, Anne Contesse in 1825, Alice in 1827 and Tazewell in 1830. Admittedly, I may be saying that last name incorrectly and if so, I apologize. Also can we just take a moment and appreciate the strength and ability of Mrs. Tyler for a minute? In an era where childbirth was dangerous for mother and child alike, it is quite the testament to this woman - who was known to have fragile health - for bearing all these children, while simultaneously running a working plantation.
And, what is even more amazing, is that almost all of these children outlived their mother, with the exception of Anne Contesse, who died as an infant just three months after her birth. In my research I also found reference to a ninth child who was either still born or died just a few days later, but I was unable to determine any other details.
The ever expanding family required sufficient space and as such, the Tyler’s moved several times early in their marriage. Their finances were aided considerably when Letitia’s parents died shortly after the Tyler’s union, leaving Letitia with a significant inheritance, which likely included several enslaved individuals. Like most women of the time, Tyler’s efforts at home meant that her husband was able to pursue political office. As described by author Melbe Porter Hay, Letitia Tyler quote “excelled in the role of plantation mistress, supervising the housekeeping and cooking, sewing clothes for the slaves, and nursing the sick” end quote.
While I do want to give credit to Tyler for being the matriarch who made her husband’s career possible, I also want to take a minute to highlight that neither she nor John Tyler’s life would be possible if not for the human beings whom they claimed ownership of. In reviewing their record, John Tyler inherited 13 slaves from his father’s estate in 1813. According to census records, the number of enslaved individuals in the Tyler household grew to twenty-nine by 1830 with historian William Freehling putting the number near 70 by the time Tyler took over the White House.
Enslaved individuals played a pivotal role in the lives of the Tylers, with even one enslaved man, James Hambleton Christian, claiming the same paternity as Letitia, making him her half brother. When he moved to the White House, Tyler brought several enslaved individuals with him, but also employed several free people of color, including the head butler, a man named Jim Wilkins. White House Butler’s had historically been white men so Wilkins’ role was significant, despite Tyler’s decision to leverage enslaved men and women during his time in the White House.
Even with the assistance of the enslaved labor to manage the day to day operations of the plantation, Letitia Tyler was still left in charge of the family finances and her accounting acumen allowed their family to avoid financial ruin, an especially challenging task given their large family meant there was almost always a medical expense, tuition bill or wedding to pay for - not to mention her husband’s propensity for being overly generous and extending bad loans. Like most planter families, the Tylers were considered land rich and cash poor, meaning Letitia likely had to engage in some creative accounting to ensure the operations of the family and farm remained apace.
As Tyler explored several political positions, Letitia stayed behind, focused on rearing the children and maintaining the home. Likely a combination of rearing such a large household and her naturally introverted nature, Letitia made only brief appearances as the political wife to her husband. Only during the 1828-1829 winter social season during Tyler’s tenure as Senator and while Governor of Virginia in 1825 did Mrs. Tyler take on the social aspects of the role of a political wife.
Another factor in her decision to be absent from the social scene likely included their precarious financial situation. Entertaining guests as the Governor’s wife in 1825 only exacerbated their financial woes and Tyler was likely more than willing to return to the relatively quiet, and cost effective, life on their plantation.
In 1839, Letitia Tyler suffered a paralytic stroke, restricting her movements so much that she was confined to a invalid’s chair. Despite the lack of physical mobility, Mrs. Tyler still oversaw the household as she maintained her ability to speak. The stroke only further deepened her faith and she could often be found with the bible sitting at her side. As her husband prepared for the role of Vice President, he decided he would perform a majority of his duties from his home in Williamsburg in order to keep his wife comfortable and to be close if needed.
Of course, that all changed with the death of William Henry Harrison. Firmly taking the reins of the office of president, Tyler eventually made the move to the White House and called for his wife to join him. Because of her stroke, Letitia was unable to serve as the official White House Hostess and called upon her daughter-in-law, former actress Priscilla Cooper Tyler, to fill the role. Priscilla proved to be a more than capable hostess, frequently charming her guests and heeding the advice of former First Lady and famed hostess, Dolley Madison.
Mrs. Tyler stayed primarily out of sight during her brief tenure as First Lady, making only one known appearance to attend her daughter Elizabeth’s wedding to William N. Waller on January 31st, 1842. At some point after her daughter’s wedding, the First Lady suffered another stroke. While she survived, her health was deteriorating rapidly and it seems as though Mrs. Tyler knew she was not long for the world as sent word for the return of her son and daughter-in-law. Unfortunately they did not make it in time as the First Lady died on September 10, 1842 at the age of 51. She would be the first president’s wife, and the youngest, to die in the White House.
Her funeral was held just a couple of days later on September 12th in the East Room of the White House. As I mentioned in my episode on Tyler, I was unable to locate any documented reaction by the president over the loss of his wife of nearly thirty years. Whatever his reactions, Tyler would remarry just two years later in 1844 - but we’ll save that story for a future episode.
And while we may not know Tyler’s internal feelings about losing his wife, the official response to her death signified the historic nature of the event. Tyler’s death was widely reported and the White House was adorned with black bunting to mark the solemn occasion.
In her death, two women continued to fill the role of White House Hostess prior to Tyler’s second marriage. As I previously mentioned, their daughter in law, Priscilla, remained in her post until March of 1844 when her husband moved to Philadelphia to practice law. Priscilla’s tenure is notable for her trip with the President during the summer of 1843. It marked the first time a president had traveled with his family while on official business. Her presence apparently increased the level of attention paid to the role of First Lady. Her tenure is also notable for being the first official White House Hostess to give birth during her tenure, when she welcomed a daughter, named after her mother in law, in 1843.
After Priscilla moved to Philadelphia, one of Tyler’s daughters, Letitia, who went by Letty, took over the role. However Letty would only serve a few months before her father remarried and her position as Hostess would end. Letty apparently never took kindly to her stepmother and caused a significant strain on her relationship with her father.
As I will explore a bit further in an upcoming episode, Tyler’s second wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler, would take on the reigns of White House Hostess until their departure from Washington in 1845.
But as for the first Mrs. Tyler’s legacy as a First Lady - well, there isn’t one. Given her healthy and inability to perform the quote unquote normal duties, she had no impact on changing protocols or otherwise altering the social scene for the Washington elite. That would come with her successor, the second Mrs. Tyler.
And with that, friends, we can close our chapter on Mrs. Letitia Tyler.
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