Playing Her Greatest Role: Priscilla Cooper Tyler and the Politics of the White House Social Scene, 1841-44

Article excerpt

One night in early May 1841, not long after becoming president, John Tyler hosted a lavish dinner party - the first of his administration - for the members of the cabinet. Official Washington had been in disarray since the untimely death of Tyler's predecessor, William Henry Harrison, one month earlier, and the night's festivities were meant to inaugurate the regular formal dinners expected of the president, as well as offer a return to the normal routine. Ushered into the White House dining room, guests found a spectacular tableau, typical of what Washington insiders had come to expect. Candles set in front of mirrors brightened the room and added a touch of elegance. Fine china combined with bouquets of fresh flowers created a beautiful table setting. As food and wine were served, pleasant and lighthearted conversation put everyone at ease, and laughter came easily. President Tyler had every reason to be pleased with the occasion.

Everyone seemed to be enjoying the evening when, suddenly, Priscilla Cooper Tyler, the president's daughter-in-law and die only woman present, felt lightheaded. "Just in the full tide of successful experiment," she related later, "at the moment the ices were being put upon the table, everybody in good humor, and all going 'merry as a marriage bell,' what should I do but grow deatlily pale, and, for the first time in my life, fall back in a fainting fit." Luckily, Secretary of State Daniel Webster was sitting next to Priscilla. He caught her, gallantly picked her up in his arms, and quickly took her away from the table, heading for the door. Before he could exit the room, however, Robert Tyler, the president's eldest son and Priscilla's husband, rushed toward Webster and threw a pitcher of cold water at him, drenching his wife and the secretary. Horrified at her husband's "impetuosity," which may have been motivated more by jealousy than a desire to assist his stricken wife, Priscilla had to be taken dripping wet to her room, "and poor Mr. Webster had to be shaken off, dried and brushed, before he could resume his place at the table!" Priscilla feared that she had "disgraced" herself with President Tyler "forever."1

Her fear was understandable. There was tremendous pressure on her father-in-law. John Tyler was the nation's first vice president to succeed to the higher office upon the death of the incumbent. His elevation presented the United States with a crisis, with what one politician called a "calamity greater . . . than any which the nation ha[d] experienced since the formation of the Constitution." Most scholars agree that the Constitution only ambiguously assigns the full right of succession to the vice president. Many of Tyler's contemporaries argued that he should have served merely as an "acting" president; he had not been elected to the office, therefore he should not have assumed the full powers of the presidency. Tyler disagreed. He insisted upon taking the oath of office and made it clear that he intended to act as if he had been elected president. He worried that both the cabinet, which he left intact after Harrison's death, and Congress might attempt to undermine his authority. He wanted to assert himself from the very beginning and make clear his intention to act as more than a mere figurehead, more than a mere pawn of the Whig party. He was not going to be a placeholder - no "Vice President acting as President." Moreover, by the time of this dinner party, he had not yet had the time to develop "matured plans of public policy" regarding what he called "deeply interesting and intricate subjects." Therefore, he needed his first dinner to succeed so that he could focus his attention on politics without any distractions. Priscilla knew how important this night was to the Tyler administration.2

She need not have worried about her fainting spell. Happily for Priscilla, no other White House engagement during the Tyler administration had that kind of excitement. In fact, all of these occasions were a credit to her social grace and charm, and she more than met her father-in-law's expectations. …