First Lady Biography: Letitia Tyler
LETITIA CHRISTIAN TYLER
12 November 1790
Cedar Grove Plantation, New Kent County, Virginia
Robert Christian, born 5 May, 1760, planter, member of the Virginia House of Delegates, candidate for Federalist Party presidential elector, died 1814
Mary Eaton Browne Christian, born 1764, James City County,Virginia; married 2 March, 1784; died 1815
English, French; Two of Letitia Tyler's paternal great-great-grandfathers immigrated to the American colonies: Thomas Christian, born in 1630 on the Isle of Man, and Gideon Macon, born in 1654 in Saone, France.
Birth Order and Siblings:
Birth order unknown, three brothers, three sisters; William A. Christian (?-?); John Beverly Christian (?-?); Dr. Oliver Christian (?-?); Elizabeth Christian Douglas (?-?); Alice Christian (?-?); Anna "Jeanetta" Christian Savage (?-?)
One source claims that Letitia Tyler was the seventh of twelve children, having seven sisters and four brothers, but provides no names or details of her siblings.
Unknown height, dark brown hair, dark brown eyes
Occupation before Marriage:
No documentation of Letitia Tyler's early life has surfaced and thus nothing tangible is known of her life before marriage. Considering the social status of her extremely wealthy family, her father's political involvement in the Federalist Party, and their proximity to Richmond, the capital city of Virginia, as well as Williamsburg, it can be speculated that her youth was probably typical of wealthy, southern plantation life - sewing and embroidery, overseeing the work of slaves in the main house and kitchens, entertaining guests, daily prayers and Bible readings, seasonal balls and receptions, some skill in playing the piano and singing.
22 years old, to John Tyler (28 March, 1790 - 18 January, 1862), lawyer and member of the Virginia House of Delegates, on 29 March, 1813 at her father's home, Cedar Grove Plantation. The couple met at a private party on a plantation neat the Christians. The wedding followed a five-year engagement and judging from the one surviving letter of Tyler's to his fiance, as well as his remarks in other letters before the ceremony, the union was loving but somewhat restrained by Letitia Tyler's conservative and undemonstrative nature. Shortly after their wedding, her parents died; her substantial inheritance provided a small cushion that permitted Tyler to pursue a career in public service (he was elected to the U.S. Congress three years into their marriage and served from 1817 to 1821)) and allowed them to rapidly move to increasingly larger houses: Mons-Sacer, Woodburn, then Greenway, Tyler's own childhood home.
Seven children; three sons, four daughters; Mary Tyler Jones (15 April, 1815 - 17 June, 1847); Robert Tyler (9 September 1816 - 3 December, 1877); John Tyler, Jr. (17 April, 1819 - 26 January, 1896); Letitia Christian Tyler Semple (11 May, 1821 - 28 December, 1907); Elizabeth Tyler Waller (1820 -1870); Alice Tyler Denison (23 March, 1827 - 8 June 1854), Tazewell Tyler (6 December, 1830 - 8 January, 1874)
Occupation after Marriage:
Throughout her husband's career, Letitia Tyler remained at home, raising her children and overseeing the running of their homes. While there is no record of her views on slavery, and it would seem that she simply accepted it as part of plantation life, she did insist that no women slaves should be permitted to do outdoor work of any kind. More often than not, theTylers experienced financial difficulties and it was the primary source of stress in the life of Letitia Tyler, who assumed responsibility for the family's investments.
For a period of about five years, however, she enjoyed some measure of her husband's success. So strong was her faith in her Episcopalian religion, however, that she refused to permit Tyler to place their daughters in the fashionable Georgetown Academy for girls in Washington, D.C. because it was a Catholic institution. While he served as Governor of Virginia, she presided as the First Lady of Virginia in Richmond, from 1825 to 1827.
As a U.S. Senate wife, she spent the social season of 1828-1829 in Washington,D.C., living in the capital at an exciting time of change from the last bitter months of the John Quincy Adams Administration to the raucous Inauguration of the first western President, Andrew Jackson.
The evidence of items owned by her, now in the Smithsonian collection, such as coral earrings and a silver case to carry her calling cards, suggests that Letitia Tyler was a socially active and engaged part of Washington society, despite the brevity of that period.
After resigning from the U.S. Senate in 1836,Tyle rmoved his family into Williamsburg, Virginia. In 1839, Letitia Tyler suffered a stroke which left her partially paralyzed, too ill to get around easily.
A year later, when chosen as the vice presidential candidate to balance the ticket with Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison, the southern Democrat Tyler intended to conduct his work from his home in Williamsburg, so he could be near Letitia.
In a series of letters to his daughter Mary Tyler Jones Tyler wrote of his wife's sagacity, discretion with sensitive information and virtue. She was, in his words, prudent. How, or if Letitia Tyler's influence applied to any of her husband's political decisions is unknown but one daughter recalled that, "I have frequently heard our father say that he rarely failed to consult her judgment in the midst of difficulties and troubles, and that she invariably led him to the best conclusion."
Presidential Campaign and Inauguration:
Since John Tyler succeeded to the presidency upon the death of President William Henry Harrison on 4 April, 1841 and did not seek a term of his own, he had neither a presidential campaign nor an inauguration. Letitia Tyler was at their home in Williamsburg, Virginia when Fletcher Webster, the son of Secretary of State Daniel Webster and chief clerk of the State Department arrived, via the boat Osceola, with the news of Harrison's death two days earlier.Tyler immediately left for the capital city. His swearing-in ceremony took place at the Indian Queen Hotel in Washington, D.C.; Letitia Tyler was not present at the ceremony. Robert Tyler, serving as his father’s secretary, followed a week later with his wife Priscilla. The other children - married daughter Letitia Semple, single daughter Elizabeth, son John, Jr., younger daughter Alice, younger son Tazewell - came to Washington in late May and brought their mother Letitia Tyler with them. Married daughter Mary Jones remained in Virginia.
4 April 1841 - 10 September, 1842
*Letitia Tyler's tenure as First Lady ended with her death
*Letitia Tyler was the first of three First Ladies to die during her incumbency
*Letitia Tyler was the first of three First Ladies to die in the White House
As chronicled in a letter written by her daughter-in-law in the years just prior to her moving into the White House, Letitia Tyler was still able to direct the management of her home and the entertaining that took place there with verbal instruction from her bedroom suite, despite the limitations on her health and movement as a result of her stroke. Her health condition stabilized and thus it was that she continued this management to a smaller degree in the White House. While she largely remained seated in her room, her Bible and prayer books being the only reading at her side table, she took a lively interest in the activities of her young children, their spouses and her growing circle of grandchildren. She was able to speak, often encouraging that the family must enjoy the social opportunities that came to them as the presidential family despite her inability to join them.
The incapacitate First Lady also directed that many charitable contributions be made from her own personal but limited wealth to the poor of Washington, although it is not known if there was any specific charity or group to which her donations were made.
She also apparently permitted special guests outside of the family in to see her, and had some interest in the world outside of her room, because she was remembered as being able to "converse with visitors on current topics, intelligently."
Finally, a remark that she "evaded the public eye as much as possible" suggests that she may have had more movement beyond her private quarters than has been previously supposed.
The political turmoil of the Tyler Administration included two consecutive nights in August 1841 when a mob surrounding the house with fire torches, banging drums, blowing horns, shouting epitaphs at the President and burning him in effigy to protest his veto of a bank bill; this protest only aggravated the delicate First Lady's condition, and she worried constantly about the continuous drain on the family finances, since a stubborn Congress insisted that the President pay all expenses out of his own pocket.
On 7 February 1842, Letitia Christian Tyler made what is believed to be her only intentionally public appearance in the state rooms of the White House as First Lady at the marriage of her daughter Elizabeth to William N. Waller. However, an overlooked account in a letter written by her daughter-in-law which described “Mrs. Tyler” in her velvet dress, also suggests that she was brought with the family one evening to the theater.
Some time later, the First Lady suffered a second stroke. She apparently was still able to speak for a letter that the President wrote to his daughter Mary Jones stated that the First Lady implored her to move to the White House or at least visit as soon as possible. This corresponds with another plea, in August of 1842, to see her son Robert and his wife Priscilla who were visiting her sister inNew York. They arrived back at the White House too late; the First Lady had died, holding a rose in her hand, having continually turned to look for her son.
The First Lady's sister Elizabeth Douglas and her daughter Lizzie Waller arrived in Washington from their homes near Williamsburg,Virginia in time to see Letitia Tyler before she died.
White House Hostesses:
Priscilla Cooper Tyler
Letitia "Letty" Tyler Semple
Priscilla Cooper Tyler,the daughter-in-law of the President and Mrs. Tyler served as the official hostess of the White House during the first three years of the Tyler Administration, from approximately April, 1841 to early spring of 1843.
She was born Elizabeth Priscilla Cooper on 14 June, 1816 in New York City. Lively, extroverted, attractive and a sparkling conversationalist with great wit, the dark-haired, dark-eyed Priscilla Tyler charmed the many notable visitors whom she entertained from members of Napoleon's family to Charles Dickens. For the general public, she initiated summer Marine Band concerts on the White House South Lawn. Priscilla Tyler was especially close to her sister-in-law Elizabeth "Lizzie" Tyler, and the younger president's daughter often aided her at social events.
The only professional actress to serve as White House hostess until Nancy Reagan assumed the position in 1981, Priscilla Cooper Tyler had first gone on the stage at 17 years old. She was the daughter of the famous actor, tragedian Thomas Apthorpe Cooper and New York socialite Mary Fairlee, who was a close friend of Washington Irving and later the basis for a fictional character in one of his works. In 1807 her father had co-leased the Park Theatre with a fellow actor Stephen Price and they built and lived in two elegant houses at Broadway andLeonard Street. With the economic panic of 1837, however, Cooper lost all his assets and he and his daughter Priscilla were forced to near starvation, surviving on radishes and strawberries and living in a ramshackle cottage, having to perform to survive. She was playing Desdemona in Richmond to her father's Othello, when a member of the audience gave a rousing standing ovation and came backstage to meet her. It was Robert Tyler, the eldest son of John Tyler, and despite her poor prospects for any inherited wealth, he fell deeply in love with her. Their attachment was immediate and it proved to be a happy partnership.
Robert Tyler and Priscilla Cooper married on 12 September 1839 in Bristol, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Letitia Tyler especially took to Priscilla, dismissing any notions of her being undesirable because she had worked as an actor, then considered by many in polite society to be a scandalous profession, especially for a woman. Although her stroke prevented her attending their wedding, Letitia Tyler immediately made Priscilla Cooper feel like one of her own daughters. The two women served as hostesses together for at least one reception, for a group of school children.
Most notable of Priscilla Cooper Tyler's tenure was her accompanying her father-in-law on an official presidential tour during the summer of 1843. It was the first time that any President travelled the United States with a female member of his family as part of his official party, thus giving a previously unrecognized level of public visibility and status to the role of First Lady. Along with the President and her husband, Priscilla Tyler was honored at a public banquet and reception in Baltimore. In New York, the party was welcomed with a flotilla of seventy-four ships, many booming cannons; in the streets, their carriage path was strewn with flowers and an estimated 40,000 citizens turned out to cheer them. Unfortunately, while walking on the steamer ship, she hit a metal bar and had to rest and thus missed much of the continuing festivities, including the dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston.
Nevertheless, as a result of the unprecedented trip, Priscilla Cooper Tyler received considerable press notice. As one New Yor knewspaper,The True Sun, editorialized, "she has shown all the power of her native strength of mind and without being dazzled by the elevation of her position..." Interestingly, the newspaper also offered an "apology for alluding" to her in print: it was considered improper and a breach of polite societal code to publicly refer directly in print to a woman of her social status. It was an early example of the public ambivalence in the 19th century of the proper role to be played by a First Lady. Was she a public figure with public responsibilities, or simply the most prominent of private ladies who presided over the most public house? Also notable was the fact that Priscilla Tyler was the first official hostess of the White House to give birth during her tenure; her second child, Letitia, was born in the spring of 1843.
Robert Tyler moved to Philadelphia in March of 1844, to practice law, and with the absence of Priscilla Cooper Tyler, the President's daughter Letitia "Letty" Semple assumed the hostess role. In Philadelphia, Robert Tyler was president of the Irish Repeal Association, which defended the rights of Irish immigrants and also sought to bring them into the Democratic Party, and notary of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In 1858, he was named chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Executive Committee. With the start of the Civil War, both Robert and Priscilla Tyler declared themselves loyal to the South and moved to Richmond where Robert was appointed register of the Confederate Treasury. After the war he edited the Mail and Advertiser in Montgomery, Alabama. He died there on 3 December, 1877. Priscilla Tyler survived him by twelve years, also dying in Montgomery, Alabama, on 29 December, 1889.
The spring 1844 social season at the White House was presided over by President Tyler's daughter Letitia "Letty" Semple, born on 11 May, 1821. Although Letty Semple and her sister Lizzie Tyler (previous to her February 1842 wedding), and on at least once occasion their eldest sister Mary Tyler Jones were on hand at White House social events to welcome guests, the President had specifically designated his daughter-in-law Priscilla Tyler as his official hostess. When she moved toPhiladelphia, the social responsibilities briefly fell to Letty Semple.
In February of 1839, eighteen year old Letty Tyler had married Captain James Semple, U.S.N. of Virginia. From the start their marriage was stormy and the President sent Semple on a three year assignment at sea as a means of postponing any potential divorce between Semple and his daughter. Tyler implored Letty and her sister Elizabeth and Alice to "Show no favoritism, accept no gifts, and receive no seekers after office.” Dolley Madison advised the Tyler women to return all social calls in person - as she had done, thus temporarily restoring her own custom which had been done away with by her immediate successor Elizabeth Monroe; accordingly three afternoons a week. Letty Semple, Lizzie Tyler and their sister-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler devoted themselves to this duty. Despite the financial straits of theTylers, the President insisted on entertaining lavishly, and so they held two dinners each week in the social season for about forty Congressional guests, and one public reception.
The three months that Letty Semple presided as the sole hostess of the White House (March to June 1844) for her widowed father was unremarkable. She was shocked and hurt when, in June 1844, her father remarried and she was no longer the hostess of the White House, replaced by a woman her own age. While the other Tyler children soon took to their new stepmother, Julia Gardiner Tyler, Letty Semple never did. Refusing to show her the most basic civility, Letty Semple forever resented her stepmother and there would be no reconciliation. Later, when the widowed Julia Tyler helped James Semple during a difficult financial period in his life, Letty Semple wrote her estranged husband that while they would not divorce, she no longer considered him her spouse. It is not clear at what point following her father's remarriage Letty Semple moved out of the White House; since the new president's wife was in Virginia and then New York with Tyler in the summer months following their elopement, and did not take up full residence in the mansion until the fall of 1844, it is likely that Letty Semple returned to her father's home in Williamsburg during that period. John Tyler managed never to alienate his daughter permanently but after his death, Letty Semple struggled on her own.
During the Civil War, Letty Semple lived in the town of Chatham, Virginia in the log kitchen dependency of the Col. Coleman D. Bennett property, located behind the Bennett home on North Main Street. Entrusted with the care of three nephews and nieces after the war, and destitute financially, she moved to Baltimore and managed to find enough financing to open a school, the Eclectic Institute for young women.
In the 1870's Letty Semple was given free room and board for the rest of her life by her friend, Washington entrepreneur W. W. Corcoran, at the Louise Home, which he created for elderly women of distinguished background who found themselves in genteel poverty. He was her escort to the numerous White House events she was invited to by Lucy Hayes, and the First Lady befriended and often visited Letty Semple at the Louise Home. She was a frequent White House guest of the President and Mrs. McKinley, and Ida McKinley often put her horse and carriage at Letty Semple's disposal.
Mrs. Semple denounced what she called “the atrocious butchery” of the 1902 White House renovation and would not enter the mansion during the Theodore Roosevelt Administration. Letty Semple prominently hung the only life oil portrait of her mother over the mantle in her bedroom at the Louise Home, always considering Letitia Tyler to have somehow been the only legitimate wife of her father, the tenth President. She died on 28 December, 1907, during a trip to Baltimore,Maryland.
The White House,Washington,D.C.
10 September, 1842
As the first incumbent presidential wife to die, Letitia Tyler's funeral was of considerable public acknowledgement. The mansion was hung with black mourning bunting, and newspapers carried details of her death, funeral and burial plans. Her coffin lay in state in the East Room, and an "official committee of the citizens of Washington" accompanied her casket from the White House to her final resting place in Virginia. The city's bells were tolled in her honor and a "crowd of her beneficiaries" gathered outside the White House, "sobbing, wringing their hands, and every now and then crying out, 'Oh, the poor have lost a friend.'"
*Letitia Tyler was the first of three First Ladies who died in the White House
Cedar Grove Cemetery
New Kent County,Virginia