Julia Dent was born at White Haven, Missouri, on January 26, 1826. Daughter of a slaveholding planter, Julia grew up in an affectionate family of seven siblings. After graduating from boarding school at age 18, she met her older brother's West Point roommate, Ulysses S. Grant. They married in 1848, and ever after Julia ensured that Ulysses and their four children enjoyed a warm and lively family circle throughout their long and happy union. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Ulysses volunteered his services, and the next few years saw his rise to fame and glory as the United States' top general.
Julia 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 the wife of 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." Her husband 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. After accompanying her husband on a two-year world tour that took them to Europe, Africa, and Asia, Julia and Ulysses settled in New York City to enjoy their retirement from public life. Unfortunately, all of their money was lost in an unwise investment scheme, and the Grants were reduced to poverty. Shortly afterward, Ulysses developed the throat cancer that led to his death in 1885. In his dying days, Grant completed his Personal Memoirs which left Julia and their children financially secure. As a widow, Julia lived in Washington, D.C., where she wrote her own Memoirs. She died on December 14, 1902, and is interred with her husband in General Grant's National Monument (Grant's Tomb) in New York City.