Alethea Club continues its study of first ladies


The Alethea Club met recently in the home of Ann Adair. In keeping with the club’s theme for 2013-2014, “Lesser Known First Ladies,” Helen Campbell presented the fourth in the series, ‘Julia Dent Grant.’

Julia Dent, daughter of Judge and Mrs. Frederick Dent of St. Louis, was born in 1826 to relatively wealthy, Missouri slaveholders who already had three sons. She enjoyed more than her share of her parents’ attention. Even after the birth of another daughter, Julia remained her father’s favorite. A cheerful, good-natured youngster, she matured into a self-assured, young woman who chose to marry against strong parental objection. She had been educated in a boarding school and was a popular young lady.

In 1848, after a four-year engagement, she was married to Ulysses Simpson Grant. She was by nature sunny, calm and modest, giving Ulysses the affection and sympathy needed during his long years of discouragement before the Civil War. He performed well enough in the army as long as he was fighting against Mexico, but later assignments to Panama, and then to a lonely outpost at Fort Vancouver, Washington went less well. He was unable to take his family with him on a lieutenant’s pay. Rumor had it that his excessive drinking led to his resignation from the army. He tried selling real estate and farming before going to work in his father’s Illinois harness shop. Although Julia later brushed aside hints that these had been trying times, as she tried to cope with her erratic husband and the four children born to them in 12 years, friends admitted she had been frequently unhappy.

Gen. Ulysses Grant won in the 1868 presidential election. Julia was just as loyal to her husband during the hard times as she was in the period of triumph. The Grant family appeared particularly healthy and appealing occupants of the White House after the tragedies associated with the Lincolns and the difficulties encountered by the Andrew Johnsons. The two older sons, Frederick and Ulysses Jr. spent most of the first years of their father’s tenure away at college, but teenager Nellie and mischievous Jesse, the baby of the family, made up for the absence. Nellie’s participation added a youthful touch to official parties that had tended to become stiff and predictable.

Interestingly, the term ‘first lady,’ was coined during this time. A new journalist called Julia ‘First Lady of the Land.’ This is the first documented appearance of the term in print. Julia tactfully asked the wives of cabinet members to receive with her at state functions at which she presided. The prosperity of the post-war years lent much brilliance and elegance to formal entertainment at the White House. Informal entertainment was almost continuous, and Julia became known for her hospitality and friendliness. However, she was sometimes quite indiscreet about the president’s official business decisions and appointments. She had to rely on social events for gaining attention because she showed little political prowess.

At the end of the Grant’s residence in the White House, they embarked on a worldwide tour that lasted 28 months. During their lengthy travels, Julia was treated more like a reigning monarch than that of a wife of an ex-president, and she thrived on the attention she received. After more banquets and honors on the continent, they sailed for the Far East.

At the conclusion of their travels, the Grants returned to New York City, and Ulysses immediately set about writing his memoirs. He was already ill with a spreading throat cancer, and just days after he had completed and sold his work, he died. The book earned a half million dollars in royalties, so Julia was encouraged to write her own memoirs and autobiography. Unfortunately hers did not interest a publisher until nearly three quarters of a century after her death, and it was not published until 1975.

Julia Grant represents an important turning point in the succession of presidents’ wives because she marked the beginning of a new phase in which “first lady” would eventually become a national symbol, widely recognized, frequently criticized and often emulated. Julia Dent Grant lived for 17 years after the death of President Grant. She died in 1902 and is buried beside her husband in the Grant Memorial Mausoleum on Riverside Drive in New York City.

After the program a formal business meeting was held during which the treasurer, Virginia Haertlein, announced that a $100 contribution had been made by the Alethea Club to Area IX of the Special Olympics.

After the meeting, Adair, assisted by co-hostesses Jill Healy and Helen Majewski, served crusted spinach hors d’oeuvres, chocolate brownies with vanilla ice cream and coffee.