Dan Rattiner's Stories

Under the Gun: Three of the Four Presidents Who Faced Impeachment Had Hamptons Ties

Clinton, Nixon and Tyler have connections to the South Fork.

At this moment, talk of impeachment is in the air. Since the country began, only four presidents have faced calls for impeachment. But here’s an interesting fact. Of the four presidents who have been involved with the impeachment process, three of them have had strong ties to the Hamptons. That is quite something.

President Nixon faced impeachment in 1974 and chose not to go through it, instead resigning from office before the procedures began. Evidence had been mounting about his involvement in the burglary of his political opponents’ headquarters at the Watergate. He was also a big fan of Montauk, coming here many times with his wife and family and always staying at Gurney’s Inn. He wrote his second Republican Party nomination acceptance speech on the deck in front of his room at Gurney’s.

Nixon Resigns newspaper
Photo: iStock

President Clinton was impeached. He went through the procedure, at least in part, because he’d had a dalliance with an intern at the White House and refused to admit to it. However, the impeachment did not result in his leaving office. He and his wife, Hilary, have often visited the Hamptons and even rented a house here for 10 years or so, including this year.

Andrew Johnson, the man who became president when Abraham Lincoln was shot, went through the impeachment proceedings in 1867, but also was not forced out of the office. There weren’t enough votes to do so. Johnson was a Southerner, the vice presidential candidate when Lincoln ran in 1860 to balance the ticket. Lincoln had freed the slaves, gave them citizenship and the right to vote, but after his assassination, his successor brought in Jim Crow and the KKK to see that the South still would be able to brutalize the former slaves. For that, Congress impeached him, though efforts to remove him failed. He never visited the Hamptons.

The president with the closest ties to the Hamptons was John Tyler. And here is his story.

Tyler really was a lousy president. He was not only the first man to face an impeachment resolution. He was also the first president, after the impeachment movement failed, to be thrown out of his own political party. As a result, he became the only president before or since who was not able to at least run for a second term. His former party would not nominate him, and the party on the other side wouldn’t, either.

Even following his presidency, he made political mistakes. After leaving office, he tried to broker a peace between the North and South. It didn’t work. After that, when the Civil War broke out in 1861, he went south and joined the Confederacy. He was an ex-president who was now a senator for a hostile government. But traveling to Richmond in a carriage to attend the first Confederate Congress, he took sick and, 10 days later, died. President Jefferson Davis presided at his funeral. Then the South lost. He has been ranked as one of the three least-effective presidents in our history.

But he did do some good things, a few, anyway. After his term ended but before the inauguration of his successor, James Polk, Tyler signed the papers that would lead to Texas becoming America’s 28th state (as a slavery state). Officially, Polk welcomed Texas. But Tyler snuck in his signature before he left office. That was about it.

But then there was Julia. And that was one of the great romances of the 19th century.

Julia was born to wealth and privilege. Her father was David Gardiner, a member of the Gardiner family in East Hampton that owned Gardiners Island. David Gardiner became a prominent lawyer in Manhattan, but as a young man he courted and married the richest woman in that city, Juliana McLachlan. So he gave up his law practice, took up the management of his wife’s affairs and moved out to the island. The island has been owned by members of the Gardiner family since 1639. It was, and still is, the longest-running family-owned island in America.

Julia was born on the island. She was the third of their ultimately four children. With the little children, the Gardiners moved back to New York City for private school, returning to the island in the summers. They built a vacation home in East Hampton for that purpose. Julia took classes at Clinton Academy on Main Street as a teenager. She also studied music and art.

Julia grew to become a great beauty. She had a coming out party in Manhattan at 16. And then, probably as a result of a scandal, she came to be part of Washington society rather than New York society.

John Tyler
John Tyler, Photo: iStock

The scandal seems ridiculous today. Somehow (the details are not clear), she allowed herself to be sketched by an artist for a New York City newspaper advertisement promoting a middle-class Manhattan department store. There she was, standing in front of the store, the caption reading, “I’ll purchase at Bogert and Mecamly’s, No. 86 Ninth Avenue. Their Goods are beautiful and Astonishingly Cheap.”

What a scandal! Julia’s parents whisked her and her brothers and sisters off by steamer to enjoy a European “tour.” They went to five foreign countries and met European royalty. The “tour” lasted 13 months. Among other things, she kissed the ring of the pope.

Returning to New York City, though, her parents decided the scandal was still simmering. Better off in Washington. The Gardiners were prominent enough and wealthy enough. They became part of President Tyler’s social entourage. And it was there, in Washington, in 1841, when Julia was 21, that she came to meet the President at a party in the White House.

There was a Mrs. Tyler, Letitia, and she and the President had been married 20 years and were raising eight children. But Mrs. Tyler had suffered a paralyzing stroke and lay hardly able to move in a bedroom upstairs. She was not expected to live long. As for the party, the oldest of Letitia’s five daughters, was acting as First Lady.

At this point, Tyler was distraught. But as things went in those days in that crowd, you tried not to show it.

Furthermore, Tyler had only recently assumed the presidency. This party, a costume party, was taking place in February 1841. Just a month earlier, Tyler was seated to one side as William Henry Harrison, the famous Indian fighter who had won the election for president, was standing on a platform in 20-degree weather without an overcoat, delivering a vigorous and long-winded acceptance speech about what he would do during his administration. Tyler would be vice president. The campaign slogan was “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” Harrison came down with pneumonia after his speech. Ten days later, he died. Tyler was president.

And now there was this very, very beautiful girl in front of him, offering him her hand as her father introduced her. Tyler later said that at that moment, though 30 years separated them, he knew then and there that after Letitia passed, he would marry this girl.

And though it took nearly two years of courtship to convince her, he did. It happened in very dramatic fashion.

Julia and her father had been invited by President Tyler to join the party sailing up and down the Potomac River for the maiden voyage of a new warship, the Princeton. On board were many famous personages. As part of the celebration, the guests persuaded the captain to fire the big gun on board. He fired it several times, then begged to do it just one more and that would be it. The gun misfired, exploding its charge in the breech causing bloody devastation and the deaths of an admiral, two members of the president’s cabinet and others including Julia’s father. Below deck was Julia, in a state room.

President Tyler was listening to some college boys sing songs for him in a cabin down below. He ran upstairs, then came back down to tell Julia her father was gone, then kept her and comforted her there in that stateroom until the ship returned to the dock. It was below deck, when he told her he would never leave her, that she finally agreed to marry him.

There are some wonderful stories about Julia Gardiner Tyler’s time in the White House. Nothing like Julia had ever happened. She began the tradition of a military band playing “Hail to the Chief” when the president entered a room. She wore expensive outfits, often with grand headdresses. She was often accompanied wherever she went out by 10 beautiful “ladies in waiting” wearing black. She rode around the city in a spectacular horse-drawn carriage pulled by six white Arabian stallions.

She held frequent parties and she allowed her image to be engraved on coins to be sold as souvenirs throughout the country by the millions. She had a press secretary and an events secretary. She orchestrated stories to be written in the newspapers about herself and her great beauty and arguably made herself the first celebrity in the country. Songs were written about her. And she adored her man.

John Tyler, meanwhile, was making his mistakes. The Whig Party, headed up by Henry Clay, had engineered a compromise between the States Rights southerners and the need for a national bank to regulate the country’s currency, put forth by the northerners. Tyler, in his acceptance speech, said he would support the compromise. When the time came for him to sign it into law, though, he vetoed it. Congress presented it to him again and he vetoed it again. The impeachment effort followed. But it failed. Then his party kicked him out. His political career was over. And all he had was Julia.

A month before his departure from office, Julia held a farewell costume party at the White House attended by more than 3,000 members of society and their friends.

In New York, where Julia was raised, slavery was already illegal. Nevertheless, in editorials she wrote for newspapers, she defended her husband’s vetoes, due to the overriding need of states rights, particularly the right to own slaves. She was, by that point, about the most famous woman of that century.

She would have loved to stay in the White House longer, but it was time to go. For the next 15 years she and her husband raised their seven children and her eight step-children in Sherwood Forest, Tyler’s plantation in Virginia. Then came the Civil War. And the trip to Richmond, the capital of the confederacy, and Tyler’s passing.

Julia Gardiner Tyler wound up impoverished, along with others who had supported the South during the war. With Sherwood Forest also torn apart, she moved to a mansion on Staten Island in New York that her mother in law owned. But she was not popular. At one point, local residents of the island raided the home looking for what they’d been told was a Confederate flag on a flagpole on the property. But there was none. In the end, Julia moved back to Washington, where she was given a pension by Congress. Not as much as was given to a regular president’s widow—after all her husband supported the Confederacy—but enough.

She died in 1883 at the age of 74.

Advice for our current president? Stay clear of the Hamptons. It’s hell on impeachments.

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