Julia Boggs Dent Grant 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.
She became the first First Lady to write a memoir, though she was unable to find a publisher, and she had been dead almost 75 years when "The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant)" was finally published in 1975.
The daughter of Frederick and Ellen Dent, Julia was born in 1826 on a plantation near St. Louis, Missouri. She grew up in relative ease, attending a boarding school, mixing with the wealthy families of St. Louis, and enjoying a peaceful life.
Julia first met Grant in 1843 when he paid a visit to the Dent family home, which was known locally as the “White House”. Although the executive mansion in Washington wasn’t called by that name until the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, it could be said that Julia was the only first lady to have lived in two White Houses. Julia’s brother, Frederick T. Dent, had been Grant’s roommate at West Point, which gave Grant an excuse to pay regular visits to the Dent plantation, but it was obvious that Julia was the reason behind it. During long afternoons of horseback riding, it was easy to see that they were in love.
One day he arrived in his horse and buggy just as the Dent family was about to leave for a wedding. They invited him to join them, and Julia rode in his buggy When they came to a bridge that was nearly flooded over, Julia grabbed on to Grant’s arm and clung to him as they made their way over the swaying structure. “I’ll cling to you no matter what happens,” Julia murmured, and once they had passed over safely and had gone a little farther down the road, he turned to her and said, “I wonder if you would cling to me all of my life.” That was his proposal of marriage. Julia accepted.
Julia's mother was raised in a cultured, educated manner, so she made sure all of her children, including the girls, were educated as well. Julia attended the local school run by John F. Long, then enrolled in the Mauro Boarding School for seven years in St. Louis. She liked the literature courses -- reading The Dashing Lieutenant and saying she wanted to marry a soldier one day -- but disliked math.
Julia thoroughly enjoyed her time as first lady. She was the hostess at many parties, nearly all of which could be described as lavish. Guests often included industrial¬ists, bankers, military officers, and publishers. Weekly receptions were open to the general public, and it wasn’t uncommon for everyday citizens to mingle with royalty. A high point of the Grants’ social life was the wedding of their daughter in 1874 during his second term as president. Nellie Grant married Algernon Sartoris, the nephew of a famous actress, Fanny Kemble, and went to live with him in England for a time before they separated. Although their marriage didn’t work out, he left her his considerable fortune when he died in 1890.
Julia was so happy in her role as first lady that she wanted her husband to run for a third term in 1876. But Grant had lost some popularity by then. His administrations were riddled with corruption, and he said, “I never wanted to get out of a place as much as I did to get out of the presidency.”
Shortly after leaving office, the Grants went on a world tour. They were honored guests wherever they went, treated to parades and banquets. They met with Queen Victoria of England and with royalty in Russia and Austria. They met with the pope in Rome, toured the Holy Lands of the Middle East, and were provided with a boat to explore the Nile River in Africa by the ruler of Egypt. Passing into Asia, they toured the Taj Mahal in India and enjoyed extravagant receptions in China. The emperor of Japan presented Julia with a set of dining room furniture that she had admired.
Upon returning home in 1880, Grant was courted by Republican supporters to seek the presidency again, and Julia urged him on. He was interested, but he refused to make an appearance at the Republican convention that year, even though it would likely have turned a close vote in his favor. Julia urged him to go, but he felt that his appearance would be an embarrassment. As it turned out, Grant’s supporters couldn’t get enough votes to nail down the nomination, and it went to James A. Garfield instead.
The Grants went back to New York and lived happily there for a few years. Suddenly, however, they were financially ruined when a brokerage firm they had invested in heavily failed.
“The light of [Grant’s] flame still reaches out to me, falls upon me, and warms me.”