Letitia Christian Tyler

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Letitia Christian Tyler
Official portrait, 1842
First Lady of the United States
In role
April 4, 1841 – September 10, 1842
PresidentJohn Tyler
Preceded by
Succeeded byPriscilla Tyler (acting)
Second Lady of the United States
In role
March 4, 1841 – April 4, 1841
Vice PresidentJohn Tyler
Preceded byFloride Calhoun
Succeeded bySophia Dallas
First Lady of Virginia
In role
December 10, 1825 – March 4, 1827
GovernorJohn Tyler
Preceded bySusanna Lawson Pleasants
Succeeded byFrances Ann Gwynn Giles
Personal details
Letitia Christian

(1790-11-12)November 12, 1790
Providence Forge, Virginia, U.S.
DiedSeptember 10, 1842(1842-09-10) (aged 51)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Resting placeCedar Grove Plantation Cemetery, New Kent County, Virginia
(m. 1813)
Children9, including Robert and Letitia

Letitia Tyler (née Christian; November 12, 1790 – September 10, 1842) was the first lady of the United States from 1841 to 1842 as the first wife of President John Tyler. After meeting in 1808, the two married in 1813. She managed their plantation in Virginia while her husband progressed his political career at the state capital and in Washington, D.C., accompanying him only while he was governor of Virginia. She had a stroke in 1839 that left her permanently disabled.

Tyler became the second lady of the United States when her husband became vice president of the United States in 1841, and she became the first lady when President William Henry Harrison died the following month and her husband ascended to the presidency. Tyler was unable to perform the duties of first lady due to her health, delegating them to her daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler. She died of a second stroke in 1842, becoming the first person to die while serving as first lady of the United States. Tyler played virtually no role in her husband's presidency, but maintained a positive reputation among the American people.

Early life[edit]

Letitia Christian was born on November 12, 1790, at the Cedar Grove plantation in New Kent County, Virginia. She was the seventh child[1]: 109  of Mary (née Browne) and Robert Christian, a wealthy planter[2]: 58–59  who was well connected with the nation's political elite, including President George Washington.[3]: 61  She was raised as a devout Episcopalian, and she closely followed norms of the time relating to piety and chastity.[4]: 79  Christian did not receive a formal education, but she was taught how to be the mistress of a Southern plantation.[5]

The Christian and Tyler families were familiar with one another, and Christian met John Tyler while he was visiting in 1808. They began a courtship in which Tyler often stopped to visit her while traveling to the state capital.[3]: 62  Their five-year courtship was restrained and it was three weeks before the wedding that Tyler first kissed her — on the hand. In his only surviving love letter to her, written a few months before their wedding, Tyler promised, "Whether I float or sink in the stream of fortune, you may be assured of this, that I shall never cease to love you."[6][7] Christian's father opposed Tyler on political grounds, as Tyler was a supporter of Thomas Jefferson.[3]: 62 

Marriage and family[edit]

Letitia Christian and John Tyler married at Cedar Grove on March 29, 1813. After their marriage, they lived in their home Mons-Sacer, built on Tyler family land in Greenway Plantation using Christian family funds;[2]: 59  Letitia's parents had died shortly after the wedding, leaving her a large inheritance.[3]: 62  Letitia Tyler was left alone after the wedding, as her husband had been called up to serve in the War of 1812. Two years later, they sold Mons-Sacer and built the Woodburn house nearby before eventually purchasing Greenway in its entirety in 1821.[2]: 59  The Tylers had nine children, seven of whom survived infancy: Mary in 1815, Robert in 1816, John III in 1819, Letitia in 1821, Elizabeth in 1823, Alice in 1827, and Tazewell in 1830.[8]: 111 Their daughter Anne died in infancy in 1825, and a ninth unnamed child died at birth.[3]: 63 

The Tylers struggled with money throughout their marriage,[2]: 59  as the financial burdens of raising several children and participating in the social aspects of politics outpaced any inheritance they received.[3]: 63  Tyler avoided the limelight during her husband's political rise, preferring domestic responsibilities to those of a public wife.[5] Tyler was responsible for managing the plantation while her husband was away at the Virginia State Capitol,[5] often with the assistance of relatives and hired managers.[9]: 145  Her management of the plantation, and in particular her ability to oversee the economic aspects, allowed her husband to be away for long periods of time, so his political career could progress.[4]: 79  Managing the plantation included managing their slaves, feeding them and weaving their clothes.[2]: 59  There is no surviving record of how Tyler felt about slavery or her husband's ownership of slaves.[9]: 145 

Tyler did accompany her husband while he served as the governor of Virginia. As the governor's wife, she worked as a hostess in the state's capital, Richmond.[2]: 59  Despite her husband's insistence, she did not join him in Washington when he was elected to the United States Congress.[3]: 62  She opted to stay in Virginia, as the plantation needed further management and she did not wish to live in the poor conditions provided by Washington, D.C.[5] She accompanied her husband to Washington only once, in the winter of 1828–1829.[2]: 59  Tyler generally deferred to her husband, but she made one significant exception when he suggested sending their eldest daughter to a Catholic school, which Tyler adamantly refused.[4]: 80 

Tyler's health was poor throughout her life, and the Tylers' oldest child, Mary, was responsible for monitoring her when John was away. Tyler's health was worsened by the toll of several pregnancies and the burden of her husband often being away.[9]: 146  By 1827, her poor health had become a constant, and she was plagued by regular headaches. Attempts were made to treat her illness with trips to the Greenbrier spring.[10]: 33  Her husband stepped away from politics twice, in 1821 and in 1836, to be closer to her.[9]: 146 

The Tylers moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1837.[2]: 59  In 1839, Tyler had a stroke that left her disabled, and her health deteriorated over the following years.[5] Most of her time after her stroke was spent reading the Bible and her prayer book.[2]: 59  By this point in her life, these were the only two books that she would read.[4]: 79–89  She did, however, continue to oversee affairs at the plantation. After her son Robert married, Tyler developed a close bond with her daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler.[2]: 59 

First lady of the United States[edit]

The sudden death of President William Henry Harrison in 1841 caused John Tyler to ascend to the presidency. Letitia Tyler's health had made it impossible for her to manage the White House, and she did not immediately travel to Washington with the rest of her family. When she did arrive, she remained in a wheelchair in the upstairs living quarters of the White House.[2]: 60  She came down once, to attend the wedding of her daughter Elizabeth in January 1842.[11] She may have attended the theater at least once while serving as first lady.[12]: 121  While upstairs, she continued to spend her time reading her Bible and her prayer book.[5]

Although she retained authority over how the duties of the first lady were carried out,[12]: 121  Tyler delegated the management of the White House to her daughter Letitia and her responsibilities as hostess to her daughter-in-law Priscilla.[5] She also played the role of advisor for her husband as he often discussed difficult issues of the presidency with her. She was well-versed enough in political issues to discuss them in detail with visitors.[12]: 121  Distinguished visitors to the White House, such as Charles Dickens and