The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant
Some years ago a friend remarked to a brand-new President’s wife (a woman of unique charm, wit, sensibility, and good grooming) that there was no phrase in our language which so sets the teeth on edge as “First Lady.”
“Oh, how true!” said that lady, after the tiniest of pauses. “I keep telling the operators at the White House not to call me that, but they just love saying ‘First Lady.’ And of course Mrs. E* always insisted on being called that.”
According to one Ralph Geoffrey Newman, in a note to the recently published The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, “the term ‘First Lady’ became a popular one after the production of a comedy, The First Lady in the Land…December 4, 1911.” The phrase was in use, however, as early as, the Ladyhood of Mrs. Rutherford B. (“Lemonade Lucy”) Hayes.
Martha Washington contented herself with the unofficial (hence seldom omitted) title “Lady” Washington. Mrs. James Monroe took a crack at regal status, receiving guests on a dais with something suspiciously like a coronet in her tousled hair. When twenty-four-year-old Miss Julia Gardiner of Gardiners Island became the doting wife of senior citizen John Tyler, she insisted that his stately arrivals and departures be accompanied by the martial chords of “Hail to the Chief.” Mary Todd Lincoln often gave the impression that she thought she was Marie Antoinette.
It is curious that a Johnny-come-fairly-lately republic like the United States should so much want to envelop in majesty those for the most part seedy political hacks quadrennially “chosen” by the people to rule over them. As the world’s royalties take to their bicycles—or to their heels—the world’s presidents from Giscard to Leone to our own dear sovereign affect the most splendid state. I am certain that had Mr. and Mrs. Richard M. Nixon of San Clemente, California and Key Biscayne, Florida continued in residence at the White House we would by now not only have grown used to those silver trumpets that herald the approach of the President but the park in front of the White House would daily be made colorful with the changing of the guard, consisting of chosen members of the CIA and FBI in green berets, bullet-proof vests, and armed with the latest listening devices.
It would seem to be a rule of history that as the actual power of a state declines, the pageantry increases. Certainly the last days of the Byzantine empire were marked by a court protocol so elaborate and time-consuming that the arrival of the Turks must have been a great relief to everyone. Now, as our own imperial republic moves gorgeously into its terminal phase, it is pleasant and useful to contemplate two centuries of American court life, to examine those personages who have lived in the White House and borne those two simple but awful titles “The President,” “The First Lady,” and, finally, to meditate on that peculiarly American religion, President-worship.
The Eighteenth President Ulysses Simpson Grant and his First Lady Julia Dent Grant are almost at dead center of that solemn cavalcade which has brought us from Washington to Ford, and in the process made a monkey of Darwin. Since 1885 we have had Grant’s own memoirs to study; unfortunately, they end with the Civil War and do not deal with his presidency. Now Julia Dent Grant’s memoirs have been published for the first time and, as that ubiquitous clone of Parson Weems Mr. Bruce Catton says in his introduction, she comes through these pages as a most “likable” woman. “No longer is she just Mrs. Grant. Now she has three dimensions.”
From her own account Julia Dent Grant does seem to have been a likable, rather silly woman, enamored of First Ladyhood (and why not?), with a passion for clothes. If photographs are to be trusted (and why should they be when our Parson Weemses never accept as a fact anything that might obscure those figures illuminated by the high noon of Demos?), Julia was short and dumpy, with quite astonishingly crossed eyes. As divinity in the form of First Ladyhood approached, Julia wanted to correct with surgery nature’s error but her husband very nicely said that since he had married her with crossed eyes he preferred her to stay the way she was. In any case, whatever the number of Julia’s dimensions, she is never anything but Mrs. Grant and one reads her only to find out more about that strange enigmatic figure who proved to be one of our country’s best generals and worst presidents.
Grant was as much a puzzle to contemporaries as he is to us now. To Henry Adams, Grant was: “preintellectual, archaic, and would have seemed so even to the cave-dwellers.” Henry Adams’s brother had served with Grant in the war and saw him in a somewhat different light. “He is a man of the most exquisite judgment and tact,” wrote Charles Francis Adams. But “he might pass well enough for a dumpy and slouchy little subaltern, very fond of smoking.” C.F. Adams saw Grant at his best, in the field; H. Adams saw him at his worst, in the White House.
During Grant’s first forty years of relative failure, he took to the bottle. When given command in the war, he seems to have pretty much given up the booze (though there was a bad tumble not only off the wagon but off his horse at New Orleans). According to Mr. Bruce Catton, “It was widely believed that [Grant], especially during his career as a soldier, was much too fond of whiskey, and that the cure consisted in bringing Mrs. Grant to camp; in her presence, it was held, he instantly became a teetotaler…. This contains hardly a wisp of truth.” It never does out there in Parson Weems land where all our presidents were good and some were great and none ever served out his term without visibly growing in the office. One has only to listen to Rabbi Korff to know that this was true even of Richard M. Nixon. Yet there is every evidence that General Grant not only did not grow in office but dramatically, spectacularly shrank.
The last year of Grant’s life was the noblest, and the most terrible. Dying of cancer, wiped out financially by a speculator, he was obliged to do what he had always said he had no intention of doing: write his memoirs in order to provide for his widow. He succeeded admirably. The two volumes entitled Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant earned $450,000; and Julia Grant was able to live in comfort for the seventeen years that she survived her husband. Now for the first time we can compare Grant’s memoirs with those of his wife.
With the instinct of one who knows what the public wants (or ought to get), Grant devoted only thirty-one pages to his humble youth in Ohio. The prose is Roman—lean, rather flat, and, cumulatively, impressive. Even the condescending Matthew Arnold allowed that Grant had “the high merit of saying clearly in the fewest possible words what had to be said, and saying it, frequently, with shrewd and unexpected turns of expression.” There is even a quiet wit that Grant’s contemporaries were not often allowed to see: “Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did” (this is known as the Eisenhower qualification: is it taught at West Point? in order to confuse the press?), “and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from this peculiarity.”
The next 161 pages are devoted to West Point and to Grant’s early career as a professional army officer. Grant’s eyes did not fill with tears at the thought of his school days on the banks of the Hudson. In fact, he hated the Academy: “early in the session of the Congress which met in December, 1839, a bill was discussed abolishing the Military Academy. I saw this as an honorable way to obtain a discharge…for I was selfish enough to favor the bill.” But the Academy remained, as it does today, impregnable to any Congress.
On graduation, Second Lieutenant Grant was posted to Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, where, he noted, “too many of the older officers, when they came to command posts, made it a study to think what orders they could publish to annoy their subordinates and render them uncomfortable.”
Grant also tells us, rather casually, that “At West Point I had a classmate…F.T. Dent, whose family resides some five miles west of Jefferson Barracks….” The sister of the classmate was Julia Dent, aged seventeen. According to Grant, visits to the Dent household were “enjoyable.” “We would often take long walks, or go on horseback to visit the neighbors…. Sometimes one of the brothers would accompany us, sometimes one of the younger sisters.”
In May 1844, when it came time to move on (the administration was preparing an interdiction or incursion of Mexico), Grant writes: “before separating [from Julia] it was definitely understood that at a convenient time we would join our fortunes….” Then Grant went off to his first war. Offhandedly, he gives us what I take to be the key if not to his character to his success: “One of my superstitions had always been when I started to go any where, or to do anything, not to turn back, or stop until the thing intended was accomplished.” This defines not only a certain sort of military genius, but explains field-commander Grant who would throw wave after wave of troops into battle, counting on superior numbers to shatter the enemy while himself ignoring losses.
When Henry Adams met Grant at the White House, he came away appalled by the torpor, the dullness of the sort of man “always needing stimulants, but for whom action was the highest stimulant—the instinct of fight. Such men were forces of nature, energies of the prime….” This was of course only partly true of Grant, in whom the moral sense was not entirely lacking. Unlike so many American jingoes, Grant did not like war for its own bloody self or conquest for conquest’s sake. Of the administration’s chicanery leading up to the invasion of Mexico, he wrote with hard clarity, “I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation…. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.” The Berrigans could not have said it better.
Grant also had a causal sense of history that would have astonished Henry Adams had he got to know the taciturn and corrupted, if not corrupt president. Of the conquest of Mexico and the annexation of Texas, Grant wrote, “To us it was an empire and of incalculable value; but it might have been obtained by other means. The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.” If Grant’s law still obtains, then the only hope for today’s American is emigration.