Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 120 / Number 3
Playing Her Greatest Role: Priscilla Cooper Tyler and the Politics of the White House Social Scene, 1841–44
- Christopher J. Leahy, pp. 236–69
Priscilla Cooper Tyler became surrogate White House hostess for her father-in-law, President John Tyler, and, in effect, acted as first lady (thought that term was not yet in use) because her mother-in-law was too ill to fulfill the duties. A former Shakespearian actress, Priscilla presided over the White House social scene from 1841 to 1844 and won over Washington society in the midst of the unprecedented partisan nastiness of Tyler's presidency. Tyler's opposition to the domestic agenda of his party—the Whigs—led to his banishment from their ranks and thrust unique challenges upon Priscilla, challenges she met with admirable poise. Employing skills she had developed on the stage, she worked tirelessly and cheerfully promoting a social agenda that legitimized the embattled Tyler administration both at home and abroad. Historians have tended to overlook Priscilla's importance, neglecting her contributions to the roles of first lady and surrogate hostess, largely because they have judged her father-in-law's presidency a failure. By placing her alongside John Tyler as a historical actor in her own right, we may not only better understand her place among first ladies but also revise our interpretation of an administration that has been incompletely judged for so long.