Priscilla Cooper Tyler

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Priscilla Cooper Tyler
Elizabeth Priscilla Cooper Tyler.jpg
Acting First Lady of the United States
In role
September 10, 1842 – June 26, 1844
PresidentJohn Tyler
Preceded byLetitia Tyler
Succeeded byJulia Tyler
Personal details
Elizabeth Priscilla Cooper

(1816-06-14)June 14, 1816
New York City, U.S.
DiedDecember 29, 1889(1889-12-29) (aged 73)
Montgomery, Alabama, U.S.
Spouse(s)Robert Tyler (1839–1877)

Elizabeth Priscilla Cooper Tyler[1] (June 14, 1816 – December 29, 1889) was the daughter-in-law of John Tyler, the tenth president of the United States.[1] She served as official White House hostess and first lady of the United States from September 1842 to June 1844.

Background and early life[edit]

Priscilla Cooper was born in New York City in 1816. Her father, Thomas Apthorpe Cooper, was a successful stage actor and producer. Her mother, Mary Fairlie Cooper, was a New York socialite. Priscilla's maternal grandfather, James Fairlie (1757-1830), was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War.[2]

Priscilla began to work as an actress at the age of 17. Thomas Apthorpe Cooper achieved great success in the theater business and they lived in a grand house on Broadway. The family's fortunes were reversed during the Panic of 1837. The family lost their house and at one point were reduced to subsisting on radishes and strawberries.[citation needed]

While playing Desdemona in a production of Othello in Richmond, Virginia, she met Robert Tyler, the eldest son of wealthy plantation owner and former US Senator John Tyler.[citation needed] Together, they had 8 children.[3]

In Victorian America, acting was considered a scandalous profession and actresses had little social standing. The addition of the Cooper's financial woes seemed to conspire to make any match between the two unlikely. Despite their social differences, the couple wed in Bristol, Pennsylvania on September 12, 1839. After their marriage, the couple moved to Williamsburg, Virginia to live with Robert's family. John and Letitia Tyler warmly welcomed her into the Tyler family. Priscilla became close to her father-in-law and their fondness for each other grew quickly. John Tyler even allowed her to open an account in every store in Williamsburg.[4]

John Tyler was the successful candidate for Vice President of the United States in the 1840 election. After the sudden death of President William Henry Harrison just one month after taking office, John Tyler became President of the United States.[citation needed]

White House hostess[edit]

By the time John Tyler assumed the Presidency, his wife Letitia was a semi-invalid. The president asked Priscilla to assist him as White House hostess.[citation needed]

Priscilla was described as extroverted, attractive, intelligent, and witty. She was also the first woman acting as First Lady to travel with the President as an official member of the Presidential party, accompanying John Tyler to Boston for the dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument in June 1843.[citation needed]

Priscilla's status as a surrogate or "proxy" hostess reflected a larger trend during the antebellum years in which younger female family members stood in for the wives of presidents.[citation needed]

Martha Jefferson Randolph established the precedent when she occasionally acted as hostess for her widowed father, Thomas Jefferson. Emily Donelson, wife of Andrew Jackson's nephew, served as hostess during the Jackson administration. Angelica Singleton Van Buren, daughter-in-law of Jackson's successor, the widower Martin Van Buren, served as official hostess from 1837-41. Mary Taylor, daughter of President Zachary Taylor, became official hostess in place of her ailing mother, as did Mary Abigail Fillmore, who served in that capacity for her father, Millard Fillmore. Finally, Harriet Lane, James Buchanan's niece, acted as hostess for the only bachelor president in American history.[5]

Robert Tyler and Priscilla moved to Philadelphia in March 1844, leaving daughter Letitia Tyler-Semple to serve as surrogate first lady. President Tyler remarried on June 26, 1844, and the President's new wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler, served as White House hostess.[citation needed]

Later years[edit]

The Tylers resided in Philadelphia for 16 years. Robert practiced law and was active in the Democratic Party.[citation needed]

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Robert and Priscilla declared loyalty to the Confederacy. They moved to Richmond where Robert took a post as the register of the Confederate Treasury.[citation needed] Her father-in-law died in 1862.

After the war, Robert became the editor of the Mail and Advertiser newspaper in Montgomery, Alabama. Priscilla remained in Montgomery after Robert's death in 1877. She spent the last twelve years of her life there. The personal papers of the Tyler family, including those of Priscilla Cooper Tyler, are held by the Special Collections Research Center at the College of William and Mary.[6]


  1. ^ a b "Letitia Tyler Biography :: National First Ladies' Library". December 28, 1907. Retrieved September 7, 2016.
  2. ^ Francis J. Sypher, Jr., New York State Society of the Cincinnati: Biographies of Original Members and Other Continental Officers (Fishkill, N.Y.: New York State Society of the Cincinnati, 2004), pp. 149-51.
  3. ^ "Elizabeth Priscilla Cooper Tyler (1816-1889) -". Find a Grave.
  4. ^ Christopher J. Leahy, "Playing Her Greatest Role: Priscilla Cooper Tyler and the Politics of the White House Social Scene, 1841-44, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 120 No. 3 (September 2012), 236-269.
  5. ^ Leahy, "Playing Her Greatest Role", p. 242.
  6. ^ "Finding aid for the Tyler Family Papers, Group A". Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary. Archived from the original on July 28, 2011. Retrieved January 22, 2011.
Honorary titles
Preceded by First Lady of the United States

Succeeded by