Jesse and Hannah Grant Go to Washington

jesse-and-hannah-grant

In his popular 2001 biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Jean Edward Smith included a portrait of his parents with a caption that says “Grant’s parents, Jesse and Hannah. Jesse was a successful businessman, Hannah a lifelong Democrat who refused to visit her son in the White House.”

It turns out that Smith got the latter part of this statement wrong. It was actually one of Grant’s aunts who was a lifelong Democrat and refused to visit the White House, and regardless, Hannah was a quiet, stoic, and pious woman whose political views historians know little about. In the course of doing research on President Grant’s First Inaugural Address in 1869, however, I recently found visual and written evidence proving that Grant’s parents did, in fact, visit Washington, D.C. and most likely the White House.

Here is a picture from Grant’s 1869 Inaugural Address.

president-grant-first-inagural-address-1869

If you look slightly right from the center of the picture, you can see a man looking down at a paper in his hands – that’s President Grant. I’ve seen this picture several times over the past few years and I hadn’t bothered to look any closer than that. If you zoom in this picture, however, you can see two people sitting just to the right of the President who look to be his parents.

president-grant-first-inagural-address-1869-close-up-view

Further research confirms that Grant’s parents planned to be at the Inauguration. Jesse wrote two letters to Grant’s Brother-in-Law Frederick Tracy Dent in February 1869, a month before the event, that have been preserved in Volume 19 of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. In the first letter, dated February 4th, Jesse asked Fred if he could find a suitable hotel for two family friends from Grant’s native Ohio who wanted to attend the Inauguration. Jesse further explained his plans for attending the event in the second letter, dated February 17th, and shared some of Hannah’s misgivings about being seen by so many people in public. “She has got the idea, that she would have to set up in the place where the Pres stands to be inaugurated–She says, Do you think I want to set [sic] up there for 50,000 people to gaze & point at? I would rather go when there are no strangers there.”

So much for that thought!

I don’t know if any Grant historians have ever noticed that his parents were at the Inauguration – I’ve never seen anything about it in any of the books I’ve read on him. In any case, it’s a cute story and we can safely conclude that Smith was mistaken. President Grant’s parents did in fact visit Washington, D.C. during his presidency.

Cheers

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2 responses

  1. The lady seated to Grant’s left does bear a resemblance to his mother in the photograph above, but I’m wondering if the seated fellow might be Salmon P. Chase, the chief justice who had probably just administered the oath of office. Kinda looks like that guy.

    1. Hi Christopher,

      I had a co-worker make the same suggestion to me, but I think there are two things that have me leaning towards it being Jesse Grant.

      1. The seated man appears to have facial hair, which Chase never had as far as I know.
      2. Chase by this time had snow white hair (as seen in this picture) and from what I can tell I think his facial features are a little different Jesse Grant’s.

      All that said, I am willing to go along with the idea that it might be Chief Justice Chase.

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