Julia Dent Grant, wife of President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877), changed the role of the First Lady. She took an active leadership role in Washington society, and began the transition of the role of First Lady into one of national leadership.
Julia Boggs Dent was born on January 26, 1826 at White Haven Plantation west of St. Louis. Her father was a wealthy planter and merchant. Julia attended private school where she was an average student, excelling in art and music. She was described then as “rather plain” and she squinted due to slightly crossed eyes. Julia developed into a self-assured, good-natured woman who knew what she wanted and usually got it.
Julia met Ulysses Grant through her brother, who was a classmate of Grant’s at West Point. She married “Ulys” in spite of strong parental objections. In fact, both sets of parents were opposed to the marriage. Mr. Dent felt that Grant had little prospect of success, and believed Julia could do much better. That opinion did not change for many years. Mr. Grant opposed the marriage because the Dents were prominent slave owners.
Grant proposed to Julia while riding in a carriage. They had to cross a bridge flooded by suddenly rising waters from a swollen creek. Julia felt it unsafe to cross the bridge, but Grant assured her the bridge was safe. Julia grabbed Grant’s arm and declared, “I’m going to cling to you no matter what happens.” After crossing the bridge safely, Grant turned to Julia and asked, “How would you like to cling to me for the rest of your life?”
Grant did well during the Mexican War, earning two special recognitions for bravery. But after the war, when he was assigned to lonely hardship posts out west, he apparently began drinking, and was forced to resign from the army. During the 1850’s, he tried selling real estate and farming, but failed at both. He eventually went to work in his father’s leather goods shop, where his younger brother was the manager. The Civil War changed Grant’s life. Throughout the war, Julia spent as much time with Grant as possible, and Grant’s staff always appreciated her effect on him.
After the war, Grant was a national hero and the obvious choice for the White House. He was elected in the first election after the war. Julia looked forward to being First Lady, and knew exactly what she wanted to do in the position. She immediately changed many things at the White House. She started by instituting a more formal and impressive White House appearance. The staff was required to wear black coats and ties, and maintain an alert appearance while on duty. Breaks were to be taken downstairs, and absolutely no loitering anywhere in the public areas. This was a dramatic change from the more informal ways that had previously been the norm.
In the Gilded Age, extravagant spending was looked upon with favor. Mrs. Grant took advantage of this change (Mrs. Lincoln had been harshly criticized for her extravagant spending) and developed a more elaborate style. Her clothing was of the finest available, and she amassed a considerable wardrobe. Her parties and dinners were the most elegant and extravagant seen up to that time. State dinners often included 29 courses, each with an expensive French wine. Julia Grant actively sought to be the leader of Washington society, and she succeeded completely.
Her family, young and healthy, seemed a welcome change from the troubled Johnson administration. Her two older sons, Frederick and Ulysses, Jr., spent most of the first years of their father’s tenure away at college. But teenaged Nellie and the mischievous Jesse, only twelve when the Grants moved into the White House, added a youthful and unpredictable air to the White House.
Jesse, whom Julia described as being “never at a loss for an answer,” kept the reporters busy with stories of family gossip. The two grandfathers did not get along, and often visited the White House at the same time. They would sometimes refuse to speak to each other, communicating only through Julia. In front of the elder Grant, Frederick Dent once instructed his daughter Julia to “take better care of that old gentleman. He is feeble and deaf as a post and yet you permit him to wander all over Washington alone.” The elder Grant responded to young Jesse, “Did you hear him? I hope I shall not live to become as old and infirm as your Grandfather Dent.” The reporters loved these stories, as did their readers. These harmless family squabbles made the family seem more accessible, and the nation identified with them. In addition, inexpensive newspapers made for a larger reading public, which in turn increased demand for such material. More and more women were reading newspapers, so many editors included more material aimed at the female market.
Because of this new market, more women reporters began to cover the capital, and they naturally focused on their female readers. One such reporter was Emily Edson Briggs, the wife of a clerk in the House of Representatives. She took advantage of her situation in Washington and wrote a column for the Philadelphia Press using the pen name “Olivia.” She relayed gossip about political families, including what was being worn and said in political society.
Olivia wrote of Julia that she was “fair, fat and forty, much like any other sensible woman who had been lifted from the ranks of the people to such an exalted position.” When Julia accidentally took the wrong seat at a public ceremony, Olivia made sure the readers learned all about the mistake.
Interest in the lives of famous people increased such coverage, unheard of before that time. Godey’s Lady’s Book, the leading women’s magazine of the day, introduced a monthly column written by Harriet Hazelton under the pen name of “Aunty Mehitable.” She often wrote about which senator’s wife made the best appearance, how the best women were dressing and how they wore their hair, and even the condition of their teeth. Aunt Mehitable pronounced Julia’s teenaged daughter Nellie as “just moderately good lookin’.” And of Julia herself, Aunt Mehitable said she “ain’t half as good lookin’ as the pictures we see of her.” Julia had closed the curtains and used gas light at her afternoon receptions, according to Aunt Mehitable, “because she knowed she wasn’t very handsome an’ gaslight would make her look better.”
Aunt Mehitable even referred to Julia’s eye condition. Julia, self-confident, posed for pictures with her usual good nature, but always tried to make sure she was photographed from the side. Once, when Julia was considering surgery to correct the crossed eyes, the President vetoed the idea saying that he loved her just as she was.
The social highlight of the Grant Administration was the marriage of eighteen-year-old Nellie to the wealthy British nephew of the famous actress Fanny Kemble. The event was the center of national attention. It was the first White House wedding in thirty-two years, and a golden opportunity for the reporters covering Washington. Harper’s Bazaar described the East Room as being transformed into “a perfect bower of bloom.” Nellie’s dress was reported to cost as much as $5,000. While the wedding breakfast was served in the White House for five hundred guests, crowds lined the streets outside hoping to get a glimpse of the couple or other famous guests. The Grants accompanied the newlyweds to New York on the first leg of their European honeymoon, extending the festive coverage. The New York Graphic announced the day after the wedding, “It is of no use. We are utterly unable to meet the demand for today’s issue.”
Although Grant liked the women around him to be dependent creatures, Julia sometimes showed her spirit. When the Grants first moved into the White House, Julia determined to keep their Washington House for the family. Eventually, she gave in and the family moved into the White House. When Grant sold their home without consulting her, she refused to sign the papers, and the deal fell through. The next time Grant found a buyer, he discussed it with her first, and she happily signed the papers, having won her point.
Julia thoroughly enjoyed her tenure in the White House, and was looking forward to a third term. Grant himself was not. One Sunday afternoon, the Cabinet called on the President, and they had a private meeting. Julia realized that it was odd for the entire Cabinet to appear without an appointment, and waited for the meeting to end to learn of the purpose for the meeting. After the Cabinet left, she went into the President’s office to see him placing a note in an envelope and giving it to a messenger. She demanded to know what the meeting was about. Grant took his time lighting his cigar, and then told her he had just announced he would not run for a third term. Julia demanded that the messenger be recalled, but Grant told her that was why he had taken his time to light the cigar, so the letter could not be recalled.
Julia, who very much wanted to stay in the White House, asked Grant why he had not read the letter to her first. Grant replied, “Oh, I know you to well. It never would have gone if I had read it.” Julia cried, “Oh, Ulys. Was that kind to me? Was it just to me?” Grant quietly said, “I do not want to be here another four years. I do not think I could stand it.” So Julia learned that her time at the head of Washington society was coming to an end.
Julia accompanied Grant on his famous world tour after they left the White House, and enjoyed being treated like royalty by the kings, queens, and prime ministers of Europe. After the tour, she settled in New York City. Grant went broke in a business deal in which he was cheated by his partner, and worked to finish his memoirs after he learned he was dying of throat cancer. He wanted to assure Julia financial security before he died. He finished his memoirs just days before he died, and the sales made Julia a very wealthy woman. This encouraged Julia to write her own memoirs. Oddly, no publisher seemed interested in them, and they were not published until 1975.
Julia Grant was the first First Lady to be covered on a personal basis and watched by the entire nation. This was a change in the coverage of the first family that coincided with the growing interest in the lives of famous people. The Grants were the first presidential family to be so covered, a trend that has continued ever since. Julia was also the first First Lady to be identified by that title. It was in a column by Olivia that Julia was called “the first lady of the land” which is the first newspaper appearance of the title we still use today.
Julia Grant was often criticized, but usually her example was emulated. This was a fundamental change in the role of the First Lady. It marked the beginning of a trend that saw the First Lady transformed into a leading national figure of great influence. Yet, she usually ignored criticism. The White House grounds had always been open to the local citizens as a park. Julia had the grounds closed to the public for the privacy of her children. Her memoirs observed a “ripple of comment” about the first family getting “too exclusive.” The objections had little effect on her, and she later remarked, “The children and I had that beautiful lawn for eight years, and I assure you we enjoyed it.”
If Grant was not a sure and confident President, Julia was a remarkable First Lady. She changed the operation of the White House, and the role of the First Lady. Today, the First Lady is a social and moral leader with influence on many issues. This role began with Julia Grant, a woman who knew just what she wanted and how to get it, and was one of the most effective First Ladies in our history.