The Peacemaker and the Cradle Robber (Podcast)


John Tyler’s explosive quest for love and Texas

 

In our Season 2 finale, we take on the single deadliest disaster to befall a presidential cabinet – the explosion aboard the USS Princeton in 1844. We look at four of the key players aboard and how they got there – President John Tyler, Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Captain Robert Stockton, and Julia Gardiner, “The Rose of Long Island” – and how this tragedy shook up Tyler’s plans for love and Texas.

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Show Notes:

I previously wrote about some elements of this story in a piece called This Anecdote About John Tyler Could Save Your Thanksgiving, but there is so much more to tell.

We begin with John Tyler, “His Accidency.” He was never supposed to be president, and he was most definitely never supposed to be in charge of the Whig Party, but John Tyler liked to break all the rules. (Note to self: Never make someone your vice-president if they disagree with everything you stand for and you’re feeble and your drinking water is a petri dish.)

John Tyler

After getting expelled from his party for vetoing their agenda, Tyler focused all his energy on annexing Texas. Texas was down to be annexed, but the powder keg of slavery made pulling it off incredibly tricky.

Tyler would need one helluva Secretary of State to get it done, and he counted on his third one to get the job done: Abel Upshur.

Abel Upshur

Upshur had previously been Tyler’s Secretary of the Navy, and he knew that a powerful modern navy would help them fight Mexico if war broke out over Texas.

And nobody was more ready to lead a powerful modern navy than the swashbuckling Captain Robert Stockton.

Captain Robert Stockton with his mustache

Stockton’s self-funded quest for glory usually involved going too far for everyone’s good. And that’s exactly what happened aboard the USS Princeton on February 28, 1844.

300 – 400 elite passengers climbed aboard to enjoy a pleasure cruise and demonstration of the world’s fastest steamship holding the world’s most powerful cannon, The Peacemaker, and eight of them lost their lives, including Tyler’s Secretary of State and Secretary of the Navy.

On that February day, the Princeton also held something almost as important to John Tyler as Texas: the beautiful young Julia Gardiner, “The Rose of Long Island.” She was an upper crust high society lady trained in the art of flirting, and she had captured the heart of the recently widowed President.

Julia Tyler, FirstLadies.org

Julia’s scandalous ad, New York Historical Society.

When tragedy struck aboard the Princeton, Tyler lost some of his dearest friends and closest allies in his fight for Texas. Because Tyler attracted tragic accidents like Julia Gardiner attracted men, he somehow ended up nominating the slavery-promoting John C. Calhoun to be his fourth and final Secretary of State.

John C. Calhoun, the stuff of nightmares.

Calhoun’s involvement complicated annexation, but didn’t prevent it – although he seemed hellbent on beckoning the nation toward Civil War.

We discuss how the explosion aboard the USS Princeton ultimately brought John and Julia together, though it contributed to tearing the nation apart.

Thank you so much for plodding along with us this season – we’ll be back with more in the spring! Keep in touch with us on Facebook!

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Sources:
Explosion on the Potomac: The 1844 Calamity Aboard the USS Princeton by Kerry Walters
And Tyler Too: A Biography of John and Julia Gardiner Tyler by Robert Seager
John Tyler by Gary May
What Really Killed William Henry Harrison by Jane McHugh and 
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