Democracy – Julia Dent Grant

Julia Dent Grant

Julia Grant with daughter Nellie, son Jesse, and her father Frederick Dent

Wikipedia Biography (w/ some additions)

Julia Boggs Dent-Grant (January 26, 1826December 14, 1902), was the wife of the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, and was First Lady of the United States from 1869 to 1877.

Born Julia Boggs Dent at White Haven plantation west of St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Colonel Frederick Dent, a slaveholding planter and merchant, and Ellen Wrenshall-Dent, Julia was rather plain in appearance and squinted through crossed eyes. In memoirs prepared late in life—unpublished until 1975—she pictured her girlhood as an idyll: “one long summer of sunshine, flowers, and smiles”.

She attended the Misses Mauros’ boarding school in St. Louis for seven years among the daughters of other affluent parents. She excelled in art and voice. A social favorite in that circle, she met “Ulys” at her home, where her family welcomed him as a West Point classmate of her brother Frederick; soon she felt lonely without him, dreamed of him, and agreed to wear his West Point ring.

Grant proposed several times before Julia finally accepted. When she did, they were sitting on the front steps of her beloved childhood home, a picturesque plantation called White Haven. In 1844 the couple embarked on a four-year engagement, deferred by the Mexican-American War, during which they saw each other only once.

Ulysses Grant, aged 26, married Julia Dent, aged 22, on August 22, 1848 at White Haven plantation. Neither of their fathers approved the match – hers because as a career soldier, Grant’s prospects seemed bleak; his because the Dents were slaveholders. Grant’s parents refused to attend the wedding, though they did come to accept Julia.

Their marriage, often tried by adversity, met every test; they gave each other a life-long loyalty. Like other army wives, “dearest Julia” accompanied her husband to military posts, to pass uneventful days at distant garrisons. Then she returned to his parents’ home in 1852 when he was ordered West.

The Grants had three sons and a daughter:

Ending that separation, Grant resigned his commission two years later. Farming and business ventures at St. Louis failed, and in 1860 he took his family back to his home in Galena, Illinois.

Farming and business ventures at St. Louis failed, and in 1860 he took his family–four children now–back to his home in Galena, Illinois. He was working in his father’s leather goods store when the Civil War called him to a soldier’s duty with his state’s volunteers. Throughout the war, Julia joined her husband near the scene of action whenever she could

Throughout the war, Julia joined her husband near the scene of action whenever she could.

After so many years of hardship and stress, she rejoiced in his fame as a victorious general, and she entered the White House in 1869 to begin, in her words, “the happiest period” of her life. With Cabinet wives as her allies, she entertained extensively and lavishly. The social highlight of the Grant years was the White House wedding of their daughter in 1874. Contemporaries noted her finery, jewels, and silks and laces.

As First Lady it was suggested to her that she have an operation to correct her crossed eyes, but President Grant said that he liked her that way.

Legacy: A strong, capable woman, Julia Grant had intelligence, drive and humor, but she rarely ventured into a more prominent role as First Lady. She wanted to have more influence, but her husband rarely listened to her, preferring her to take care of only domestic matters. She was a wonderful helpmate to her husband: supportive, calming and humorous, but, outside of their marriage, Julia was denied any real political role in her husband’s life. If for no other reason, Julia Grant was unique in that no one enjoyed their stay in the White House as much as she did, received as little censure as she did, or left it as sadly as she did.

General Information:

Ancestry: English

Siblings: Julia was one of eight children: 4 boys and 4 girls

Physical Description: Short, rather stocky, with dark hair, with dark hair and brown eyes, a prominent nose and a cast in one eye that gave Julia a determined look. The cast caused her to be “wall-eyed”; that is, to see one object and another at the same time. Never a pretty woman, some called her plain, but she had a sparkle, charm and a ready smile that lightened her rather heavy features.

Religion: Methodist (her maternal grandfather, John Wrenshall, was a Methodist minister)

Education: Julia’s mother came from a cultured background. Because of this, she made sure all of her children, even the girls, were educated. Julia grew up in wealth and was educated at the local school run by John F. Long. She did well, except for Roman numerals. Later she attended the Mauro Boarding School for seven years, where she enjoyed literature but disliked mathematics. After returning home in 1844, she met the young Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, who was stationed at the nearby Jefferson Barracks. He was a classmate of Julia’s brother, Frederick Dent, and became an admirer of Julia’s.

Husband: Ulysses Simpson Grant (1822 – 1885)

Courtship and Marriage: Colonel Dent made it clear from the start that he hoped his daughter would marry someone able to provide her with comfort. This was something Grant could not offer on a soldier’s pay. Even so, by the time his regiment was ordered to Louisiana, he and Julia were informally engaged, unbeknownst to Colonel Dent. After a year’s delay, they finally told him and won his very reluctant permission to marry. The Mexican War again delayed their marriage. At the successful conclusion of the war, the young couple was married on August 22, 1848. Among Grant’s attendants was James Longstreet of Civil War fame, who was also Julia’s cousin.

Age at Marriage: 22 years, 208 days

Personality: A cheerful person, Julia loved people. She also loved being the center of attention. No other woman in our nation’s history loved being First Lady as Julia Grant did. An ardent admirer of fine things, Julia reveled in the dinners, receptions, State Dinners and the pomp. At the core of it all, it was a heady feeling after so many years of uncertainty, poverty (after her marriage to Grant), and the carnage of war. Grant always needed his wife with him; her steady nature, good humor and common sense kept him focused and on an even keel. He was apt to fall into moods of uncertainty and depression, and Julia was able to keep his spirits up. After appointing Grant as Commander of the Army of the Potomac, President Lincoln would send for Julia to join her husband, knowing of her good influence on him.


1. Frederick Dent Grant (1850 – 1912)

2. Ulysses S. Grant (1852 – 1929)

3. Ellen (Nellie) Wrenshall Grant Sartores Jones (1855 – 1922) – married in the White House in 1874

4. Jesse Root Grant (1858 – 1934)

Years Before the White House (1848 – 1869): The years before the Civil War were filled with pain, hardship and difficulties for both Grant and Julia. The first four years they lived in Detroit and Sackett’s Harbour in New York, where Julia learned to cook and kee[ house. She enjoyed the social whirl of army life. In 1850 and 1852, she gave birth to two sons, Frederick and Ulysses, who was called “Buck” because he was born in Ohio. Julia was staying with her in-laws in Ohio at the time, while her husband was serving in the army on the Pacific Coast. This would be Julia’s only connection to Ohio, other than that it was her husband’s birthplace. After a two-year separation, the Grant’s were reunited. They faced hardships, however, since Grant had resigned from the army. Julia’s father Colonel Dent, although facing financial difficulties of his own, gave them land to farm. They called the land “Hardscrabble”. The Grants had little success in farming the land, and the Panic of 1857 brought financial ruin to the farm. Dent’s plantation failed as well. By 1860, the Grants were living in Galena, Illinois where Grant was working for his father in the tanning business. The Civil War gave Grant his chance at success. However, Colonel Dent supported the Confederacy and refused to speak to his son-in-law. Julia remained faithful to her husband. She spent as much with him as she could; in fact, unlike most officers, Grant insisted that Julia be with him. Once he was named Commander of all the Union forces in 1864, Julia found herself the center of attention – something she grew to love. The war’s end, Lincoln’s assassination and the turmoil afterwards, propelled the Grants into the spotlight. Given gifts, honors and even a house in Galena, the years after the war brought fame and prosperity to the Grants. Grant’s election to the presidency in 1868 was a certainty – Mary Lincoln’s snappish remark to Julia some years earlier about becoming a First Lady was about to come true.

First Lady (1869 – 1877): After a long line of four-year (or less) First Ladyships, Julia Grant would be the first First Lady to serve 8 full years since Elizabeth Monroe. With the help of the socially prominent wife of the Secretary of State, Julia Fish, Mrs. Grant made her way through the pitfalls of White House life with ease. Her male servants wore dress suits and white gloves. She ordered new rugs, furniture and gave the White House a thorough cleaning. Smoking was forbidden, except for the President’s cigars and, with the help of an excellent cook, dinners took on an opulence and splendor rarely seen before or since. Wine flowed and the meals sometimes lasted four hours. There were Tuesday afternoon receptions given for “any and all” and when asked about “colored visitors”, Julia replied, “Admit all.” However, behind Julia’s back, her staff denied entrance to the colored visitors. The china ordered by Mrs. Grant, with a yellow border and flowers in the center, still remain among the handsomest in White House history. The two younger Grant children, Jesse and Nellie, had a grand time in the White House. Nellie’s wedding in 1874 to an Englishman, Algernon Sartoris, was among the most elaborate in White House history. The Grants spent their summers at Long Beach in New Jersey, where they bought a cottage.

Julia Grant fueled the rumor mill with a story that she helped her husband in the Fiske-Gould attempt to corner the gold market. Julia’s brother-in-law was involved in the Fiske-Gould situation. Grant wanted to curb the attempt. He dropped a hint to Julia to write to her brother-in-law’s wife and ask her to persuade her husband to drop out of the speculation. Grant arranged the sale of the government gold and ended the panic. Julia supposedly got a bribe for her intervention. Julia’s attempts to influence her husband on political issues, however insistent, were rarely listened to. She thought she had more influence than she did, and history has proven her belief to be wrong. She had little or no influence in the policy of the Grant’s administration.

Grant’s wise decision not to run for a third term met with Julia’s sullen disappointment. Knowing his wife as well as he did, Grant kept the letter announcing his decision not to seek re-election a secret.

During Julia Grant’s eight-year tenure, the White House was restored to the center of Washington’s social life. Julia had succeeded in making it both a social center, as well as a comfortable home. Her last act was to prepare a luncheon for the incoming Rutherford and Lucy Hayes on Inauguration Day 1877. She sobbed like a child when she climbed into her carriage to leave. No one ever left more reluctantly than Julia Grant.

Julia Grant reveled in her years as First Lady, describing it as the happiest time of her life. She quickly befriended the wives of her husband’s cabinet members, and hosted stylish, popular balls in the Executive Mansion. She refurbished the White House with new rugs, furniture and chandeliers, and had the Army Corps of Engineers add Grecian columns to the building’s façade. By her order, the capitol was open to the general public every Tuesday afternoon, welcoming common folk and the wealthy alike. In a remarkably bold move, she directed that even ‘colored’ visitors were welcome, although capitol staff usually turned them away without her knowledge. When her husband’s Presidency ended, she hosted a lavish luncheon to welcome President-Elect Rutherford B. Hayes and his family.


Father: Frederick Fayette Dent (plantation owner, b. 7-Oct-1787, d. 15-Dec-1873)
Mother: Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent (b. circa 1792, m. 22-Dec-1814, d. 14-Jan-1857)
Brother: John Cromwell Dent (b. 22-May-1816, d. 1889)
Brother: George Wrenshall Dent (b. 30-Jan-1819, d. 1899)
Brother: Frederick Tracy Dent (b. 17-Dec-1820, d. 23-Dec-1892)
Brother: Lewis Dent (b. 3-Mar-1823, d. 22-Mar-1874)
Sister: Ellen Wrenshall Dent (b. 28-Jun-1828, d. 6-Dec-1904)
Sister: Mary Dent (b. 30-Dec-1829, d. infancy)
Sister: Emily Marbury Dent (b. 6-Jun-1836, d. 1866)
Husband: Ulysses S. Grant (US President, b. 1822, dated 1844-48, m. 22-Aug-1848, d. 1885)
Son: Frederick Dent Grant (US Army General, b. 30-May-1850, d. 12-Apr-1912)
Son: Ulysses Simpson Grant Jr (“Buck”, real estate investor, b. 22-Jul-1852, d. 26-Sep-1929)
Daughter: Ellen Wrenshall Grant Sartoris Jones (“Nellie”, b. 4-Jul-1855, d. 30-Aug-1922)
Son: Jesse Root Grant (gambling resort owner, b. 6-Feb-1858, d. 8-Jun-1934)

More on Julia as First Lady: Julia Dent Grant very much enjoyed being married to the hero of the American Civil War. But if she liked being the wife of a military hero, she was ecstatic about becoming wife to the President of the United States. She was thrilled with her husband’s nomination for the presidency in 1868 — even more than the candidate himself — and immersed herself in his campaign. She was such a major figure in her husband’s bid for the presidency that after his inauguration, Ulysses S. Grant turned to his wife and said, “And now, my dear, I hope you’re satisfied.”

Julia was more than satisfied. She loved her role as First Lady, and her busy social schedule entertained Washington society. After four years of war, an assassination, and an impeachment trial, Washington was ready for a little levity, and Julia obliged. She offered a full array of events and became a popular hostess. She planned lavish state dinners, where guests enjoyed expensive wines and liquors. She also received callers at informal receptions as long as the ladies wore hats and the men left their weapons at home.

Although she reveled in her role as hostess, Julia was also interested in the politics that surrounded her husband. Her most important role as presidential spouse was her ability to help her husband maintain his sense of humor and keep him on an even keel. She was also a good judge of people and generally had an accurate sense of the politics of a situation. She was not shy in exercising influence over her husband and was an important adviser to him throughout his administration. However, it is unclear how much influence she really wielded. Ulysses S. Grant was a very independent man who listened to his advisers but then often made his own decisions. So while Julia discussed aspects of the administration with her husband, she most likely had little say in the final decision.

Mrs. Grant also sought to imbue the position of First Lady with the appropriate prestige. She believed that the position should command the same dignity and honors accorded wives of foreign leaders, and she was frustrated when the role was not publicly acknowledged. Not only did she seek added prestige for the first ladyship, but she also worked to improve the stature of the wives of the diplomatic corps, the cabinet, the Congress, and the Supreme Court.

But Julia Grant was not only interested in the status of government wives; she was a staunch defender of women’s rights in general and refused to allow jokes at women’s expense to be told in her company. Those who questioned the capabilities or equality of women earned her wrath, as Brigham Young discovered when the First Lady grilled him about the Mormons’ practice of polygamy and its negative effect on women. Yet while she believed in the abilities of women, she was not sure that women should work nor did she publicly support women’s suffrage although she refused to sign an anti-suffrage petition’an obvious omission to many.

Her attitude regarding minorities was also nuanced. Although Julia grew up on a plantation with slaves and seemed to believe that blacks were not fully equal to whites, she refused to lend any support to white supremacists, including her brother Louis Dent. She strongly encouraged blacks on the White House domestic staff to buy land in the District while it was still cheap, in order to ensure their future financial security. She also decided to greet anyone properly dressed — regardless of race — who attended her afternoon receptions, but never questioned why blacks failed to call on her. The simple answer was that White House security prevented them from doing so.

Perhaps the only drawback to Julia’s role as First Lady was that it had to end. She was devastated to discover in 1875 that her husband had declined to run for a third term. Despite emerging scandals, Ulysses S. Grant was still popular among Americans. He was certainly in no doubt about his wife’s opinion, as she strongly lobbied him to extend his tenure. When he ultimately rejected the idea, he did so without consulting her, knowing she would try to talk him into it. Upon discovering her husband’s decision, Julia thought the choice unfair — not to the American people, who would be deprived of his stewardship, but to her, because Julia’s tenure as First Lady would come to an end.

When the 1876 presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden ended in dispute, Julia saw an opportunity to extend her time in the White House. She thought her husband should remain President until the matter could be settled. She admitted that her “policy would have been to hold the fort until another election could be held.” Ulysses disagreed, and when Congress settled the election in favor of Hayes, Julia had to prepare herself to leave the White House behind. It was not easy. She delayed turning over both the presidential mansion and her role until the last minute, even holding the first Inaugural Luncheon so she could still preside as First Lady. When she finally left the White House and Washington, D.C., she wept, complaining to her husband, “Oh, Ulys, I feel like a waif, like a waif on the world’s wide common.”

Although Julia Dent Grant would have liked to spend more time as First Lady, she made a notable impact in her eight years as a presidential spouse. She continued to imbue the position with prestige and helped to enshrine it as equal parts social hostess and political partner. Through her stewardship, the public was growing accustomed to seeing the First Lady in both roles.


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