Letitia Christian Tyler
The Invisible First Lady
By Anne Adams
If some presidential couples seemed to be ill fitted for each other, Letitia Christian and John Tyler were well matched since their families were Virginia plantation owners, and they shared many of the same values.
However, Letitia’s family was not only wealthier than the Tylers, but also had great political and social influence in that period. Born in Virginia on her family farm in November, 1790, Letitia was a good-natured compliant child, and was educated in what was traditional for girls at the time. She learned the basics of reading, writing, and figuring but mostly she received extensive training in how to manage a home. For, like other women of her time, Letitia did not expect to take any part in the man’s world of business or politics. As one writer put it: “Like most women of the Old South, she learned that grace and beauty could get her far … As a result, she evolved into a quintessential belle: pious, polite, reserved and as good at avoiding public conversation in weighty matters as she was at knitting.” (“The Secret Lives of the First Ladies”, Cormac O’Brien, p. 50).
For his part, Tyler had an education suited for his career plan as a young lawyer who would eventually seek public office. He attended William and Mary College in Williamsburg, and then studied law with his father, who served governor of Virginia. In 1811 he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, but with his father’s death in 1813 he inherited family property. So with his political and business careers progressing, he decided it was time to consider marriage. His choice was Letitia Christian, who was a small, dark-eyed and very pretty young woman and as one writer put it “she always projected an aura of serenity that was restful.” (“Presidents’ Wives”, Carole Chandler Waldrup, p. 80).
However, when he proposed he was concerned about her motivation since he believed his family was less well off than hers. Still, after she accepted him he realized it could have been that her reason for accepting him was because he was rich. “If I had been wealthy,” he told her, “the idea of your being actuated by prudential considerations in accepting my suit, would have eternally tortured me.” Yet Letitia was not concerned about Tyler’s economic situation, she loved him, wanted to marry him and begin their family.
As a devout Christian, Letitia was a perfect example of proper behavior as the couple courted. Tyler wrote poetry for her, they exchanged and discussed books of common interest, and he did not kiss her hand till three weeks before the wedding.
They were married in March, 1813, and then when Letitia’s parents passed away soon after, it left her financially comfortable. Then soon after their marriage Tyler joined the local militia when the War of 1812 brought the possibility of a British invasion to their area. Then he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
While he was to serve an eventual two terms, Letitia was content to remain at their home with their growing family and welcome him home between Congressional sessions. Actually, since Washington at the time was a muddy, malaria ridden, swampy city, the Tyler home was home a much more pleasant place.
In 1825 Tyler was elected governor of Virginia and that meant a family move to Richmond. There they entertained as the position required but since Tyler had to pay much of it himself they were soon in debt. Even though Letitia entertained as frugally as possible their debts grew. Then since the legislature continued to ignore Tyler’s continued requests for more money, he decided to dramatize his need. He entertained some of the legislators with a banquet of Virginia ham, cornbread and cheap whiskey, but his ploy didn’t succeed. Tyler only served one term as governor.
In 1827 Tyler was elected to the Senate. As he had while in Congress and like other legislators at the time, he lived in a Washington boarding house and Letitia remained back at their Virginia home. However, she did spend the winter of 1828-29 in Washington and there was complimented on her “beauty of person and eloquence of manner.”
By now they had six children (of an eventual eight), and while Tyler spent freely with friends and relatives, Letitia did her best to operate her home frugally and economically. As he served in the Senate, Tyler remained deeply concerned and interested in his family, anxiously waiting for Letitia’s letters about the family and trying very hard to be involved in his children’s upbringing. He employed tutors to educate them and expressed his interest in a letter to daughter Mary: “Your resolution to attend to your studies and not to be led away by the vanities of the world affords me sincere pleasure. Without intellectual improvement, the most beautiful of the sex is but a figure of wax work.”
After Tyler ran for the vice presidency in 1836 and was defeated he then moved his family to Williamsburg to practice law. There Letitia and Tyler enjoyed being with old friends, and also seeing their children circulate socially and make productive career connections. However, while living there in 1839, Anna suffered a stroke, and never really recovered her health or mobility and so could not attend the marriage of her son Robert to actress Priscilla Cooper. The newlyweds came to live with the Tylers as Robert practiced law, and Priscilla became close to her invalid mother in law, assisting as needed with cheerful willingness.
In 1840 Tyler again ran for vice president and this time was elected with William Henry Harrison as the new president and they assumed office in March, 1841. Because the vice president at the time had few official duties, Tyler decided he would spend the next four years visiting Washington as necessary but continuing to reside in Williamsburg. So after being sworn in as Vice President, he returned home. During Harrison’s final illness no one had thought to keep the VP informed of the president’s illness so there was confusion and disruption in the Tyler home when the messenger arrived with the news of the president’s death. Because of this when Tyler set off for Washington, it was not clear when or if the family would follow. However, while Letitia decided the family would move to the White House, because of her disability she asked Priscilla to go along to serve as White House hostess. In future months Priscilla would prove a charming, efficient and capable hostess, greatly assisted by the Washington society dame, former First Lady Dolley Madison. However, because Letitia was largely confined to her wheelchair, the First Lady limited herself to the family quarters. Said one writer: “a demure and bashful person to begin with, her crippled condition made Letitia all the more willing to remain out of sight.” (O’Brien, p. 52).
So Letitia spent her brief period as first lady in the family quarters, and only attended one social event – her daughter’s marriage in January, 1842. She died in September of that year, and was buried at the Virginia home.
A native of Kansas City, Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College, Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book
“Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”