Born January 26, 1826, Julia Boggs Dent Grant would one day become the wife of the 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. She was born just west of St. Louis, Missouri at her parents’ White Haven plantation. Her parents were Frederick Dent and Ellen Wrenshaw, and her father was a planter of substantial wealth who owned a medium-sized group of slaves, slightly smaller than the handful often owned by planters who were just scraping by, but far fewer than the hundreds owned by large, upper-class wealthy planters. During Julia’s childhood, her father owned about thirty slaves and refused to even consider freeing them, objecting to it on what he stated were moral grounds. Frederick Dent only freed his slaves when the Northern victory in the Civil War compelled him to.
Julia was the fifth of her parents’ eight children, and she later described her childhood as one of idyllic happiness. Beginning at age five, she attended a local one-room grammar school for both boys and girls. At age ten, she began studying at all-girls The Misses Mauros’ boarding school in St. Louis, where she boarded during the week and came home to the plantation on the weekends. She studied at the boarding school in this way, mingling with the daughters of other well-to-do and upper-middle-class parents, until she was seventeen.
Julia was skilled at playing the piano, was an expert horsewoman, and an enthusiastic reader of novels. Her family mingled with those in the high society of St. Louis, and William Clark (of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition) was a close family friend.
Julia was also born with crossed eyes, meaning the muscles in her eyes didn’t match in strength, so the eyes did not line up correctly with each other. Her eyes, therefore, rarely, if ever, pointed in the same direction. Even back in those days, the operation to fix this congenital defect was known and simple to perform, and one of the best surgeons of Julia’s time offered to correct her eyes for her. She declined, being wary of any surgery. Later, after her marriage and her husband’s rise to national political prominence, she re-considered the surgery, thinking she should make as good an appearance in public for him as possible. Ulysses Grant would not hear of her undergoing the surgery, telling her that he fell in love with her with those crossed eyes, and as his wife, they were his to command and control. He forbid the surgery, saying he may not love her as much if she looked any different. Julia did not do the surgery, and typically posed for photos in profile, so the crossed eyes were not noticeable for official and public portraits.
Julia’s brother Fred Dent went to West Point Academy, where he became friends with a fellow student, Ulysses S. Grant. He was much impressed by Grant, and wrote to Julia about him, saying he wished her to meet him, describing Grant in a letter to Julia as “pure gold.” Grant began visiting the Dent family soon after, in 1844, a year after Julia graduated from her boarding school.
Ulysses was smitten with Julia pretty much from the beginning and even asked her to wear his West Point class ring when she was 18, which was a sign that they were exclusive with each other. She at first refused, but when his class was sent to Louisiana to train to participate in the Mexican-American War, Julia was quite upset and re-considered Grant’s offer. Julia also had a prophetic dream that Ulysses would return to her just days after leaving, and stay for a week, which was highly unlikely, considering he had just been assigned to Louisiana, but it actually came true. When he left once more, they were apart for four years, during which time they wrote and planned their marriage. Upon Ulysses’s return, they married at Julia’s parents’ home on August 22, 1848. Ulysses’s father refused to attend the wedding, not because he did not like Julia, but because he objected to her family’s ownership of slaves.
The early years of Julia’s marriage to Ulysses were difficult ones, financially. Ulysses was still with the Army, and Julia gave birth to two sons during his lengthy absences from home. He was unhappy being so far away from her and his sons so often, so resigned from the Army in 1854. They bought a farm but were living at subsistence level, barely able to feed their children. Things became worse when Ulysses came down with malaria and was unable to farm at all for a time. They had to move in with Julia’s parents, and Ulysses got a job as a rent collector when he recovered. However, it was still not enough to support his family, so he wrote to his father for financial help. Ulysses was given a job in the family leather-making business, working under his two younger brothers, which was humiliating, but it gave him enough money to get the family out of debt and put food on the table
Ulysses organized volunteers at the beginning of the Civil War, and eventually became commander of the Illinois troops, where he and Julia had moved to work for Ulysess’s father. They had four children by then, three boys and a girl, all of whom outlived their parents. Refusing to be apart from her husband, and knowing he was lonely without her, Julia accompanied Ulysses to almost every outpost where his troops were sent during the war, leaving the children with relatives. When President Lincoln appointed Ulysses commander of the Union army, he approved of Julia’s presence at the camps, as he knew how much having her nearby improved Ulysses’s spirits and confidence.
When Ulysses was nominated for president in 1868, Julia was even more thrilled than he was, and she threw herself into campaigning for him. Unlike most presidential wives of the past, who did not want their husbands to lead the nation, Julia was the prime moving force behind Ulysses following through with it. When he won, he is said to have sweetly asked her if she was satisfied.
She learned from the mistakes of past First Ladies, as well, avoiding too much spending like Mary Todd Lincoln, but also being much more jovial and holding more parties than some of the more austere First Ladies. She was known for holding regular social events, the only requirements for attendance being the women wear hats and the men not bring any weapons.
Julia also thought the position of First Lady should have more dignity, and be on par with that of the wives of other heads of state. Throughout her tenure, she pushed for more recognition of the office of First Lady, as well as for increased prestige for the wives of all the other members of the federal government. The public did not accept this prestige she wanted to put into the office as much as she would have liked.
When Ulysses decided not to run for a third term as president, she was extremely upset, and when the results of the next presidential election were disputed, she wanted she and Ulysses to stay in the White House until a new election could be held. Ulysses disagreed, and allowed Congress to settle the election, bestowing the presidency upon Rutherford B. Hayes.
Julia was a woman ahead of her time in many ways. She was a staunch supporter of women’s rights and refused to allow jokes about women to be told in front of her. Anyone who suggested women were inferior to men in front of her was promptly told off. While she did not publicly support suffrage for women, she pointedly did not sign a petition against it. She also allowed anyone, regardless of race, call on her at the White House as long as they were properly dressed; however, African-Americans rarely appeared at her door, because the White House security staff refused to let them in, despite her directive that they should.
She did not believe blacks and whites were fully equal, but did not believe in white supremacy, either, and refused to support those who were in favor of it, including her brother, Louis Dent. She claimed to have owned four slaves before her marriage, and one after, but it is not clear whether she actually owned them, or was just being lent them by her father; when she and Ulysses moved to Illinois, her father insisted the slaves who were supposedly hers stay with him in Missouri, because he did not want to risk them making an escape to freedom.
After the White House, Julia and Ulysses retired to New York and took a two-year trip around the world. They were still living in New York when Ulysses died in 1885. A bad investment had reduced them to poverty after the White House, but the memoirs he published shortly before his death restored Julia and the children to wealth. After Ulysses died, Julia moved to Washington, D.C. and acted as an advisor and friend to other First Ladies. She also wrote her own memoirs, the first First Lady to do so, though they did not find a publisher willing to publish them until 73 years after her death.
Julia died in 1902 and was buried beside her husband in the impressively designed Grant’s Tomb in New York City. In addition to her pioneering ways as a feminist, anti-white supremacist, and enthusiastic First Lady, she was also the first First Lady to appear on film after the invention of the movie camera.