The past couple weeks have been pretty exciting for me:
– I showed up on the front cover of the local newspaper for South St. Louis County, the South County Times, as part of a proposal being discussed to possibly change the color of Ulysses S. Grant’s White Haven estate. You can read about it here. I was asked to give the reporter who did this story a tour of the home, so I knew I would be making an appearance somewhere, but little did I know that I’d be on the front cover! I have little to no say on the final decision on the house’s color and will interpret the house regardless of what the final decision is, but it’s been interesting to hear from others and I’d welcome more comments here on the proposal discussed in the paper.
– Earlier this week I was elected to the Board of the Missouri Council for History Education. I was nominated by a couple people in the National Park Service and am honored to play a role in the organization going forward. There are a lot of talented and passionate teachers throughout the state in this organization. The council more or less promotes and encourages the teaching of history in k-12 Missouri classrooms. It’s a particularly exciting time to be on the board given that the state is beginning to ramp up commemorations for Missouri’s bicentennial in 2021 and an increased emphasis on Missouri history will hopefully take place in classrooms throughout the state.
– I’ve been talking with a local high school history teacher about doing a presentation for his students about the Reconstruction era in January that I’ve been really excited about. The challenge is that I’ll only have fifteen minutes to hit the highlights and explain the significance of the era, but I actually feel like this time constraint could be a good thing that forces me to get to the point quickly.
Life is good and 2017 has been a great year for my development as a historian and educator.
I’ve been working on a research project in collaboration with the Missouri State Archives, and in the course of this research project the folks at the archives came across an 1859 court case involving Ulysses S. Grant and his Father-in-Law that I have never seen before. I wish I could say that the court case provides groundbreaking insights into Grant’s experiences while living in St. Louis (1854-1859) but instead it adds more confusion and mystery to that story.
On August 11, 1858, Philip Rothenbucher loaned $200 to Grant, his Father-in-Law Frederick Dent, and Harrison Long, who I’m unfamiliar with. The promissory note states that “Twelve months after date we, or either of us” promise to pay the loan back at ten percent interest. A year went by and no one had paid back the $200, so Rothenbucher sued at the St. Louis County Circuit Court on September 6, 1859. Rothenbucher wrote a testimony and produced the promissory note signed by Grant, Dent, and Long. Apparently no one on the defense appeared in court, and on September 7 Rothenbucher was awarded $222.40 ( only 1 percent interest of original the note).
But here’s where things get weird.
The St. Louis County Sheriff reported that he successfully executed a writ of summons to Dent and Long to appear in court, but that “the other defendent U S Grant not found in my County.” Dent and Long were therefore held responsible for the $222.40 due to Rothenbucher while Grant was dismissed from the case. I suppose this outcome was also possible because of the wording of the original note states that “we, or either of us” would figure out a way to pay back the debt. What’s weird to me is that Grant was still in St. Louis in September 1859. In fact, he wrote a letter to his father on August 20 reporting that he was waiting to hear back from a Board of Commissioners appointed to select the next St. Louis County engineer, and another to his father on September 23 stating that his application for county engineer had been rejected and that he was unsure about his future in St. Louis. The last letter in Grant’s hand from St. Louis was written in February 1860 (See The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 1, pages 350-355 to see these letters).
So where was Grant in early September 1859? I am stumped. In any case, this lawsuit further reinforces the fact that Grant was badly impoverished and in debt by the time his family left St. Louis for Galena, Illinois. Probably no one involved in this case could have expected that Grant would be president ten years later.
Here are the files from the court record. Some of the pages are hard to read:
Over the past thirty years, Ulysses S. Grant has seemingly become a topic of study for every pop historian and Civil War expert in the field. The heavy work of reassessing Grant started with historian Brooks Simpson, but now countless biographies of the man–several of them 700 to 1,000 pages long–have been published in recent years. Several noteworthy figures well-known beyond the academy such as H.W. Brands, Ron White, and Ron Chernow have all taken their turn writing studies that can easily be found on the shelves of a local Barnes & Noble store. The accuracy and reliability of these Grant biographies vary. It is easy to look at every new major biography and wonder what else needs to be said that hasn’t already been said.
From my perspective on the ground level of public history, however, I can safely say that even though Grant’s reputation as a whole has improved considerably, the view of Grant’s presidency as hopelessly corrupt and failed still remains. Classrooms throughout the country still point to corruption claims as the one major fact to know about Grant’s presidency, and academic historians not intimately connected to the Grant studies phenomenon still frequently look upon his two terms negatively or not at all. Richard White’s magisterial new overview of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, The Republic for Which it Stands, cites liberally from William McFeely’s problematic Grant biography and subsequently interprets Grant as a vain, publicity-starved executive who did not really care about the protection of black rights in the South. Eric Foner’s equally magisterial overview of Reconstruction barely mentions the Grant administration at all, even though its eight years in office occurred during that era. Kenneth Stampp’s now-dated study of Reconstruction conveys a sentiment still common among most Americans that Grant “contributed little but political ineptitude” during his presidency.
And so, within a crowded field of new Grant scholarship and still widely divergent understandings of Grant’s presidency among history enthusiasts of all levels, Charles Calhoun’s new study of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency manages to say something new about a greatly misunderstood time in American history. In assessing the Grant administration, Calhoun convincingly argues that Grant’s presidency “produced a record of considerable energy and success, tempered at times by frustration and blighted expectation” (7). Determined to face the new political challenges of Reconstruction in his own way, Grant faced enormous resistance from his critics even before taking office. Given the circumstances, one would be hard pressed to find anyone from the time who could have done any better.
Calhoun’s book works well on two levels. For those already familiar with the issues Grant faced during his presidency, Calhoun provides added depth. For those not familiar with those issues, the book’s clarity allows it to simultaneously function as a useful introduction.
Among the arguments Calhoun makes:
Grant expressed great reluctance to run for President in 1868, but felt that it was his obligation to run. President Andrew Johnson had attempted to inaugurate a quick restoration of the Union on his own, without the help of Congress. He worked to re-enfranchise and pardon the mass of former Confederates who had recently engaged in active rebellion against the country. He also proclaimed that America should have a “white man’s government.” By essentially handing the keys of Reconstruction back to those most opposed to it while ignoring the black and white southern unionists who had fought to maintain the Union, Johnson unintentionally pushed Grant into the Republican Party. As Grant would state in his Eighth Annual Message to Congress, Reconstruction meant “whether the control of the Government should be thrown immediately into the hands of those who had so recently and persistently tried to destroy it, or whether the victors should continue to have an equal voice with them in this control,” with assistance from Congress. Grant sought political reunion and sectional reconciliation with former Confederates, but not at the expense of sacrificing the fruits of Union victory: Union, emancipation, and, in his mind, political equality irrespective of race, nativity, or sect.
Senator Charles Sumner expressed skepticism about Grant’s dedication to the Republican Party and Reconstruction even before he ran for president. Even though many former Confederates bitterly resisted the Reconstruction process, a central theme of Calhoun’s book is that Sumner and his New England cohorts (Charles Francis Adams, Henry Adams, John Lothrop Motley, etc.) expressed their own vitriolic criticisms of Grant that arguably shaped future negative perceptions of his presidency more than the former group. Sumner believed his long service to the Republicans meant that he deserved the role of Secretary of State. When Grant went in a different direction and the New England cohort did not receive the plum government offices they believed they were entitled to, they actively resisted the administration and led the push to form the Anti-Grant Liberal Republican party. It was common to hear critics who called for “reform” and the end of the patronage system for filling government offices during Grant’s presidency, but with astonishing frequency these critics were often disgruntled office-seekers themselves.
Calhoun dedicates a good chunk of the book to Grant’s foreign policy initiatives, including the Treaty of Washington, proclaiming neutrality amid growing tensions between Cuba and their Spanish colonizer, and his failed effort to annex Santo Domingo–the Dominican Republic today–to establish a military presence in the Caribbean and provide a black state for African Americans facing persecution in the south. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish’s able administration of the State Department is a central feature of Grant’s foreign policy.
Another central focus lies in the reconstruction of the nation’s finances, which I’ve written about here. Grant and his first Treasury Secretary George Boutwell successfully lowered taxes, interest rates on government bonds, and the national debt. They desired a return to the gold standard in the wake of paper “greenbacks” being utilized during the Civil War to help fund the government, but were cautious not to return to the gold standard too quickly and subsequently deflate the country’s currency. They concocted a scheme to “grow up” greenbacks until they were of equal value to gold, upon which the government would return to the gold standard. Calhoun also assesses the 1869 “Black Friday” gold ring and the economic panic of 1873. Calhoun argues that Grant became increasingly conservative in his views towards financial matters by the time of the panic, and that this perspective complicated Grant’s and Congress’s efforts to alleviate the depression.
Calhoun argues that Grant felt a sincere sympathy towards Native American Indians and argued that they had been “put upon” by whites. Rather than advocating for Indian extermination, which some Generals like William Sherman and Philip Sheridan supported, Grant sought peace through a new peace policy and a Board of Indian Commissioners that would clean up the country’s Indian trading posts. Grant, however, also advocated for white westward expansion and acknowledged that the two ideas were contradictory. Implicit in his policy was the belief that Indians would have to assimilate to white ways. This assimilation called for Indians to become Christianized farmers on reservations who would embrace “civilization” and be trained to eventually become American citizens. Some Indian tribes like the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek heartily supported Grant’s policies, which were strongly influenced by his friend and Seneca Indian Ely Parker. Other tribes, particularly those in the Plains region, realized that their lands and way of life were becoming extinct. The Peace Policy therefore led to some of the worst battles between Indian tribes and the U.S. Army, including the Battle of Little Bighorn. Calhoun offers a wonderful chapter on the Indian Peace Policy during Grant’s first term, but I would have liked more analysis of the negative effects of the policy during his second term as the violence increased.
Grant tried his best to protect white and black unionists in the South and ensure that all would have a chance to enjoy citizenship and suffrage rights. Most notably, the Department of Justice was formed to prosecute white terrorists in groups like the Ku Kux Klan when states and localities refused to bring these groups to justice. This initiative was the first in which the federal government enforced and protected civil rights for Americans, but many white Americans, even those who were sympathetic to the Republican Party, were apprehensive about government overreach and the power of the federal government to intervene in local elections (even though many of these people heartily supported military intervention in Indian affairs). Grant himself even expressed more reluctance to get involved in Southern elections towards the end of his second term, no doubt influenced by a poor economy, growing northern indifference towards southern affairs, and a changing Congress (Democrats gained a majority of House seats in the 1874 midterms) that opposed his policies.
Corruption did exist in the Grant administration, most notably through the Whiskey Ring Scandal of 1875 and Secretary of War William Belknap’s receiving of kickbacks from the sale of government jobs, but Calhoun offers a strong defense of Grant’s administration on this count. Some Cabinet members like Amos Akerman and Ely Parker were unfairly charged by political opponents with corruption charges. Disgruntled office-seekers called for civil service reform, and Grant expressed willingness to go along with these initiatives as long as Congress played a role in the process. When they continually slashed funds from a Civil Service Commission established in 1871, Grant concluded that civil service reform could not be effectively implemented. As with any claims of corruption today, one must always look at the agenda of the person making the claim. In a heated political climate with much resistance to Grant and Reconstruction more broadly, corruption claims were often used to delegitimize the President’s initiatives. Calhoun’s study, combined with Mark Summers’s Era of Good Stealings, convincingly shows that while government corruption as an issue was very important in the 1870s, actual corruption was not nearly as widespread as it was in the 1850s and 1860s.
When historians collect primary source documents during research, they must determine which of these sources can be relied upon when crafting an accurate interpretation of the past. This challenge is harder than it might seem at first blush. Most historians would agree that finding primary sources that are contemporary to the historic event or person being researched is more ideal than something produced years later. For example, an official report, letter, or diary entry created during the Battle of Gettysburg is most likely a more reliable source for understanding what occurred during the battle than an interview conducted fifty years later with an aged veteran.
There are some benefits to hindsight, of course, and mistakes in recollection can be made at any time during the event itself. Knowing how the Battle of Gettysburg turned out and having a general understanding of that battle’s consequences has its benefits. Hindsight offers time for personal reflection and can help inform one’s understanding of their role in a historic event. But memories are fickle and finite. Fine details and particulars of an event fade with time and can be overwhelmed by the creation of new memories during subsequent moments of importance. A veteran’s recollections of Gettysburg fifty years after the fact straddle the line between history and memory, and between a reliable source and an unreliable one. They must be used with caution and taken with a grain of salt.
I think about this challenge all the time within the scope of my work interpreting the life of Ulysses S. Grant. While there is an abundance of primary source documentation from Grant himself and others chronicling his experiences as a Civil War general and Reconstruction era president, hardly any documentation exists about Grant’s life before the Civil War that was created at that time. The number of letters in Grant’s hand from his five years in St. Louis at the White Haven plantation (1854-1859) numbers around a dozen. The number of documents created by other family members around Grant at that time is close to zero. And nothing from the perspective of the enslaved people owned by Grant’s father-in-law was created during that time. How can a reliable interpretation of these experiences be crafted with such a paucity of documentation?
The imperfect solution offered by historians, Grant biographers, and public historians alike has been to look at Grant’s actions in the absence of his words. More imperfectly, they also look at the words of people who claimed to know Grant at the time and reflected on his life forty or fifty years after the fact. With regards to the latter there are a number of resources to rely on: Grant’s 1885 Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant barely discussed his St. Louis experiences, but his wife Julia Dent Grant wrote her own Personal Memoirs in the 1890s and dedicated a good portion of her book to the family’s experiences at White Haven; likewise, writers Hamlin Garland and William Conant Church both conducted interviews with people who claimed to know Grant and wrote biographies of him based on those interviews in 1898 and 1899, respectively. In the absence of primary source documents from the 1850s, these latter documents are frequently used by contemporary historians to provide insights into Grant’s life before the Civil War. These sources, however, sometimes contradict each other and are frequently ambiguous or outright wrong.
One such example of an ambiguous document is an interview with Mary Robinson, an African American woman in St. Louis who was enslaved at White Haven by Grant’s Father-in-law, Colonel Frederick Dent, at the time that the Grant family lived there. The interview was conducted by the St. Louis Republican on July 24, 1885, the day after Grant died of throat cancer. In it, Robinson recalls her interactions with Grant and makes the following claim about his views on slavery:
Grant was a very kind man to those who worked for him, and he always said that he wanted to give his wife’s slaves their freedom as soon as he was able.
This line has been used more than once by historians to argue that Grant opposed slavery before the war. As I pointed out in this essay, Julia Dent Grant did not actually have legal title to any of the enslaved people at White Haven, but her father did loan her four slaves to attend to her needs while at White Haven. One historian in particular has recently claimed, on the basis of the Robinson interview, that the reason Julia did not have legal title to those enslaved people was because her father feared that Grant would free them. Is that a reliable interpretation to make?
What little we have of the record from the 1850s is far more complex. Grant himself never espoused antislavery views in his letters before the Civil War. He made the decision to move to a slave plantation in 1854 and at one point even owned a slave of his own, William Jones, that he later freed in 1859 (see the above link for more info). Furthermore, when Grant made his views on slavery publicly know in an August 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War, he argued that “early in the rebellion” he had come around to believe that slavery had to be abolished, but that “I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery” before the Civil War.
An important factor in determining the reliability of Robinson’s recollection is the context in which it was produced. Grant had died the day before. The white interviewer had no interest in learning about Robinson’s own experiences in slavery and probably edited her comments to paint Grant in a positive light. Would the article really be edited to point out that Grant had been a slaveholder? I doubt it. If one were to read this interview and know nothing else about Grant’s life in St. Louis, they’d have no idea that he owned William Jones. Can it be trusted as a reliable source in uncovering Grant’s views on slavery before the war? Many historians have cited it, but I’m not so sure.
The point here is not to determine whether Grant was truly antislavery or proslavery before the war. As we can see, the evidence is mixed, and in any case I think it’s far safer to argue that there was an evolution in Grant’s thinking over time. The bigger challenge here and in so many other instances during historical research is that the absence of definitive primary source documentation from the time in which an event took place makes the task of painting an accurate portrait of the past all the more difficult. When historians are faced with interpreting the recollections of people long after the fact, they must exercise caution and sharp judgement in determining that source’s reliability.
As Reconstruction continued in the mid-1870s, white Democrats in states throughout the south became increasingly desperate and brazen in their efforts to overthrown the Republican Party from power. The Republicans–the party of which the vast majority of black voters aligned with–faced intimidation at the polls and armed paramilitary groups at political meetings. Sometimes outright violence occurred. In the contentious state elections of 1875 in Mississippi, the Democrats and various paramilitary groups created the “Mississippi Plan” to remove Republicans from office, by violence if necessary. President Ulysses S. Grant hesitated to offer aid to Republican Governor Adelbert Ames when asked for federal troops to restore order. Grant feared that the sight of federal troops meddling in a state election would hurt the Republicans in state elections in Ohio, a place where support for military rule of the South and Reconstruction as a whole was beginning to wane.
African American Congressman John Roy Lynch of Mississippi arranged a meeting with President Grant to discuss patronage matters and the President’s refusal to send troops to help Governor Ames. What follows is Lynch’s recollection of that meeting, which he included in his fascinating bookThe Facts of Reconstruction (1913). I think it is one of the clearest explanations Grant offered in discussing his understanding of Reconstruction’s goals and what the “fruits of victory” in the Civil War meant for the country’s future. We can also see that the end of Reconstruction came about partly because of white Northern indifference to violence and fraud at the polls during elections in the South. What follows is from pages 150-155.
“[I] informed the President that there was another matter about which I desired to have a short talk with him, that was the recent election in Mississippi. After calling his attention to the sanguinary struggle through which we had passed, and the great disadvantages under which we labored, I reminded him of the fact that the Governor, when he saw that he could not put down without the assistance of the National Administration what was practically an insurrection against the State Government, made application for assistance in the manner and form prescribed by the Constitution, with the confident belief that it would be forthcoming. But in this we were, for some reason, seriously disappointed and sadly surprised. The reason for this action, or rather non-action, was still an unexplained mystery to us. For my own satisfaction and information I should be pleased to have the President enlighten me on the subject.
The President said that he was glad I had asked him the question, and that he would take pleasure in giving me a frank reply. He said he had sent Governor Ames’ requisition to the War Department with his approval and with instructions to have the necessary assistance furnished without delay. He had also given instructions to the Attorney-General to use the marshals and the machinery of the Federal judiciary as far as possible in cooperation with the War Department in an effort to maintain order and to bring about a condition which would insure a peaceable and fair election. But before the orders were put into execution a committee of prominent Republicans from Ohio had called him. (Ohio was then an October State–that is, her elections took place in October instead of November.) An important election was then pending in that State. This committee, the President stated, protested against having the requisition of Governor Ames honored. The committee, the President said, informed him in a most emphatic way that if the requisition of Governor Ames were honored, the Democrats would not only carry Mississippi–a State which would be lost to the Republicans in any event–but that Democratic success in Ohio would be an assured fact. If the requisition were not honored it would make no change in the result in Mississippi, but that Ohio would be saved to the Republicans. The President assured me that it was with great reluctance that he yielded–against his own judgement and sense of official duty–to the arguments of this committee, and directed the withdrawal of the orders which been given to the Secretary of War and the Attorney-General in that matter.
This statement, I confess, surprised me very much.
‘Can it be possible,’ I asked, ‘that there is such a prevailing sentiment in any State in the North, East or West as renders it necessary for a Republican President to virtually give his sanction to what is equivalent to a suspension of the Constitution and laws of the land to unsure Republican success in such a State? I cannot believe this to be true, the opinion of the Republican committee from Ohio to the contrary notwithstanding. What surprises me more, Mr. President, is that you yielded and granted this remarkable request. That is not like you. It is the first time I have ever known you to show the white feather. Instead of granting the request of that committee, you should have rebuked the men–told them that is is your duty as chief magistrate of the country to enforce the Constitution and laws of the land, and the protect American citizens in the exercise and enjoyment of their rights, let the consequences be what they may; and that if by doing this Ohio should be lost to the Republicans it ought to be lost. In other words, no victory is worth having if it is to be brought about upon such conditions as these–if it is to be purchased at such a fearful cost as was paid in this case.’
‘Yes,’ said the President, ‘I admit that you are right. I should not have yielded. I believed at the time that I was making a grave mistake. But as present, it was duty on one side, and party obligation on the other. Between the two I hesitated, but finally yielded to what was believed to be party obligation. If a mistake was made, it was one of the head and not of the heart. That my heart was right and intentions good, no on who knows me will question. If I had believed that any effort on my part would have saved Mississippi I would have made it, even if I had been convinced that it would have resulted in the loss of Ohio to the Republicans. But I was satisfied then, as I am now, that Mississippi could not have been saved to the party in any event and I wanted to avoid the responsibility of the loss of Ohio, in addition. This was the turning-point in the case.’
‘And while on this subject,’ the President went on, ‘let us look more closely into the significance of this situation. I am very much concerned about the future of our country. When the War came to an end it was thought that four things had been brought about and effectually accomplished as a result thereof. They were: first, that slavery had been forever abolished; second, that the indissolubility of the Federal Union had been permanently established and universally recognized; third, that the absolute and independent sovereignty of the several States was a thing of the past; fourth, that a national sovereignty had been at last created and established, resulting in sufficient power being vested in the general government not only to guarantee to every State in the Union a Republican form of government, but to protect, when necessary, the individual citizen of the United States in the exercise and enjoyment of the rights and privileges to which he is entitled under the Constitution and laws of his country. In other words, that there had been created a National citizenship, resulting in a paramount allegiance to the United States–the general Government–having ample power to protect its own citizens against domestic and personal violence whenever the State in which he may live should fail, refuse, or neglect to do so. In other words, so far as citizens of the United States are concerned, the States in the future would only act as agents of the general Government in protecting the citizens of the United States in the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property.’
‘This has been my conception of the duties of the President, and until recently I have pursued that course. But there seems to be a number of leading and influential men in the Republican party who take a different view of these matters. These men have used and are still using their power and influence, not to strengthen but to cripple the President and this prevent him from enforcing the Constitution and laws along these lines. They have not only used their power and influence to prevent and defeat wise and necessary legislation for these purposes, but they have contributed, through the medium of public meetings and newspaper and magazine articles, to the creation of a public sentiment hostile to the policy of the administration. Whatever their motives may be, future mischief of a very serious nature is bout to be the result. It requires no prophet to foresee the that national government will soon be at a great disadvantage and that the results of the war of the rebellion will have been in a large measure lost. In other words, that the first two of the four propositions above stated will represent all that will have been accomplished as a result of the war, and even they, for the lack of power of enforcement in the general government, will be largely of a negative character. What you have just passed through in the State of Mississippi is only the beginning of what is sure to follow. I do not wish to create unnecessary alarm, nor to be looked upon as a prophet of evil, but it is impossible for me to close my eyes in the face of things that are as plain to me as the noonday sun.’
It is needless to say that I was deeply interested in the President’s eloquent and prophetic talk which subsequent events have more than fully verified.
President Donald Trump went out of his way yesterday to honor the 250th birthday of Andrew Jackson in Tennessee, which in turn has amplified continued online conversation about who in American history is deserving of honor through public ceremony and monumentation. Writer Shaun King was quick to declare that “no President who ever owned human beings should be honored” and that “slavery was a monstrous system. Everybody who participated in it was evil for having done so. Period. No exceptions.”
Some of the most difficult work in public history right now, in my opinion, centers around the nature of public commemoration and understanding how societies choose to remember their past. These are difficult conversations to have and the boundary lines between “good” and “bad” are arbitrary and poorly defined. King’s argument is provocative and worth considering. Generally speaking, I agree that owning slaves was a choice and that participating in the institution of slavery is inexcusable. But once you read the story of Ulysses S. Grant, our last President to be a slaveholder, you might conclude that King’s argument is simplistic and not a very satisfying resolution to the question of who and who isn’t worthy of public honor.
Now, I make my living educating people about General Grant’s life and times, so it could be easy for a reader to claim that I am “biased” or that I am a Grant apologist. I would reject that claim. All I can say is that I have my views about Grant but that those views have been developed through years of vigorous study of the man based on the best historical scholarship around. I don’t approach my job with the intention of portraying Grant as a hero or a sinner to visitors, but rather seek to humanize his experiences and increase understanding of his beliefs, motivations, and actions within the context of 19th century history.
Ulysses S. Grant lived in St. Louis from 1854 to 1859. For most of that time he worked as a farmer and lived with his family at White Haven, his In-Laws slave plantation in South St. Louis county. During this time Grant somehow obtained one slave, William Jones (see here for a more detailed essay I wrote about Grant’s relationship to slavery). We don’t know how or why he obtained Jones, nor do we know for how long he owned him. We do know, however, that he freed Jones in March 1859 before leaving St. Louis, something many other slaveholding Presidents never did with their enslaved people. That was the extent of Grant’s personal experiences in slaveholding. Unfortunately for historians, Grant didn’t leave any letters before the war stating one way or the other how he felt about the institution as a whole. It appears that Grant never challenged slavery’s presence in America or considered the politics and philosophy of slavery in writing before the war.
Something changed in Grant’s mind during the Civil War, however. He embraced emancipation as a war aim and welcomed black troops into his ranks. By the end of the war, one out of seven troops in his ranks were black. During the initial phases of Reconstruction, Grant came to believe that President Andrew Johnson’s policies towards the South were too lenient and that the freedpeople deserved more protection against violence, black codes, and overt discrimination by whites. After the Memphis Massacre in 1866 Grant called upon the federal government to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators who killed 46 African Americans, which never happened. When Grant was elected President in 1868, he immediately called upon Congress and the states to ratify the 15th Amendment preventing states from banning men from voting based on their race. On March 30, 1870, he delivered a message to Congress in which he declared that the 15th Amendment was the most significant act in U.S. history and a repudiation of the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision:
It is unusual to notify the two Houses of Congress by message of the promulgation, by proclamation of the Secretary of State, of the ratification of a constitutional amendment. In view, however, of the vast importance of the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution, this day declared a part of that revered instrument, I deem a departure from the usual custom justifiable. A measure which makes at once 4,000,000 people voters who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so (with the assertion that “at the time of the Declaration of Independence the opinion was fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race, regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, that black men had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”), is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present day.
In 1871 Grant responded to the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan by using the KKK Act to shut down the group. That year he also used his Third Annual State of the Union Address to call upon Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico to abolish slavery. He repeated the theme in his Fourth Address, stating that the Spanish Empire’s continuation of slavery in Cuba was “A terrible wrong [that] is the natural cause of a terrible evil. The abolition of slavery and the introduction of other reforms in the administration of government in Cuba could not fail to advance the restoration of peace and order. It is greatly to be hoped that the present liberal Government of Spain will voluntarily adopt this view.” In future addresses he spoke out against other White supremacist groups in the South like the White League and Red Shirts who continued to commit acts of violence and sometimes outright massacres against African Americans in the South. And during his Post-Presidency world tour, Grant stated to Otto von Bismarck about the Civil War that “As soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.”
Frederick Douglass spoke often about Grant and was a dedicated supporter of his Presidency. At one point he stated that “Ulysses S. Grant, the most illustrious warrior and statesman of modern times, the captain whose invincible sword saved the republic from dismemberment, made liberty the law of the land. A man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him, the negro found a protector . . .” and recalled in his 1881 book Life and Times of Frederick Douglass that:
My confidence in General Grant was not entirely due to the brilliant military successes achieved by him, but there was a moral as well as military basis for my faith in him. He had shown his single-mindedness and superiority to popular prejudice by his prompt cooperation with President Lincoln in his policy of employing colored troops, and his order commanding his soldiers to treat such troops with due respect. In this way he proved himself to be not only a wise general, but a great man, one who could adjust himself to new conditions, and adopt the lessons taught by the events of the hour. This quality in General Grant was and is made all the more conspicuous and striking in contrast with his West Point education and his former political associations; for neither West Point nor the Democratic party have been good schools in which to learn justice and fair play to the Negro (433-435).
Is Grant someone who should never be honored, as Shaun King suggests?
My biggest issue with King’s argument is that it assumes that people in the past never changed their thinking over time and that a former slaveholder like Ulysses S. Grant could never come to realize that holding humans in bondage was wrong. Grant was far from a saint: his ownership of William Jones was inexcusable, his General Orders No. 11 during the war expelling Jews from his lines was inexcusable, and his Indian policy during his Presidency was well-intentioned but flawed. But are there not actions he took in his life that were commendable and worth honoring?
One of the bigger problems I see with this whole discussion is that we as a society should really focus on understanding before honoring. I would rather see President Trump read a book about Andrew Jackson than stage a big ceremony honoring the man (who, to be sure, has a horrid record as a slaveholder, racist, and Indian fighter, and is someone I wouldn’t be comfortable honoring). I would like for Americans to go to historic sites with the intention of understanding the life and times of historic figures. I would like for people to appreciate complexity, nuance, and the basic idea that people–then and now–often hold evolving and contradictory views towards politics.
I suppose my historical training has soured me on the idea of “heroes” as a general approach to appreciating history. I admire the words of the Declaration of Independence, but I haven’t forgotten that the author of those words raped Sally Hemmings. I admire Washington’s words about entangling alliances and the importance of Union, but I haven’t forgotten that he too was a slaveholder. I think Jackson was right on the South Carolina Nullification Crisis, but I won’t forgive him for the Trail of Tears or his violent slaveholding. I think Grant was wrong for being a slaveholder, but I appreciate the efforts he undertook as President to protect the rights of all, and I appreciate that he came around to believe that slavery was an evil wrong. I appreciate moments in history when right triumphed over wrong and people in the past took principled stands for positions that protected the rights of all Americans, but I never forget that people in the past were humans, not Gods, and that even the best humans have their flaws. And I never forget that American freedom was first established in this country on a co-existence with and acceptance of slavery.
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.
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.
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.