(January 19, 2019) Even among the most Grant-partial historians there’s no denying that Ulysses Grant and his wife owned slaves prior to the Civil War. In fact, “Ulysses Grant” is the correct answer to a crafty American history trivia question that asks: “Can you name the last slaveholding President?”
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As growing political correctness causes our culture to increasingly condemn historical figures connected with slavery, Grant supporters are scrambling for explanations to exempt him from denunciation. Foremost among these are his role in defeating the Confederacy and his (suspect) advocacy for minority civil rights during his presidency. But Grant fans also try to explain away his pre-war participation in the slave economy. Here are the facts:
When Grant married Julia Dent in 1844 he wedded into a slave owning family whose patriarch was Frederick Dent. In 1850 Dent owned about thirty slaves including eighteen on his White Haven farm near St. Louis. After resigning from the pre-Civil War army, Grant moved to the St. Louis area to earn a living as a private citizen in 1854. His first attempt was at farming during which he used a number of the Dent slaves to fell trees, plant crops and build a house for his family.
Following the death of his wife, Frederick Dent moved into the town of St. Louis in 1857 and rented 450 acres of White Haven to Grant. In 1858 Grant wrote his sister, “I have now three negro men, two hired by the year and one of Mr. Dent’s, which, with my own help, I think, will enable me to do my farming pretty well.”
At some point during Grant’s time at White Haven he also acquired personal ownership of a slave named William Jones. Later Grant gave up on farming and in the spring of 1859 moved the family into St. Louis where four slaves that had been given to Julia by her father served him. The next year Grant gave up on St. Louis altogether and moved his family to Galena, Illinois where he worked in one of his father’s tannery shops.
The year before the move to Galena in 1860, Grant emancipated William Jones, “for divers[e] good and valuable considerations.” Although “good and valuable considerations” is a legal expression that can include money among other factors, every Grant biography I’ve read assumes that Jones did not even partially purchase his freedom but was instead given it.
Beyond the above facts many Grant supporters excuse his connections to slavery with at least three mitigating points.
One. They emphasize that Grant emancipated William Jones whereas he could have sold him for perhaps $700. Grant, they argue, would never sell slaves.
But other evidence suggests that he might. One example is Hamlin Garland’s “Grant’s Life in Missouri” article from Volume 8 (November 1896 – April 1897) of McClure’s magazine. Garland summarized the recollections of St. Louis newspaper owner George Fishback:
All of Captain Grant’s associations and (apparent) sympathies at that time [1854-1860], says Mr. Fishback, were pro-slavery in character. . . . He said: “I know something of the leather business, and I think I can do better up in Galena with my brothers.” He then asked me if I would buy or hire one of his house servants. She was an excellent woman, he said, and had been in the family some time, but as she was a slave he could not take her North . . . He at last turned them over to John F. Long in security for a small indebtedness, and the slaves finally fell back into the possession of Colonel [Frederick] Dent.
Two. In a recent online forum discussion Grant supporters insisted that the two “hired” blacks mentioned in Grant’s letter to his younger sister were paid by Grant for their work. The forum participants mostly relied upon Ron Chernow’s recent hagiography as evidence. Without citing a source, Chernow wrote that “Grant hired two black men” to work for him at White Haven.
The forum members—and perhaps Chernow—were apparently unaware that surplus slave labor was commonly “hired out” by slaveholders. When so informed one replied that Grant was too high principled to ever “rent human beings.” Yet it is more likely than not that the two blacks were slaves, which means that Grant paid their owners, although he might have added supplemental payments to the workers directly.
First, slave rental agreements typically used language such as “hired out” as Grant did in his letter to his sister. Additionally, the letter states that the two men were hired out for a year, which was a time period consistent with field hands who were slaves.
Second, when contemplating a move to one of his dad’s Kentucky businesses late in 1859, Ulysses was undeniably disposed to rent one of Julia’s slaves if his dad did not want him to take the boy to Kentucky. Specifically in a letter to his dad he wrote: “I can leave him [the slave] here [St. Louis] and get about three dollars per month for the boy, and more as he gets older.”
Third, in “Slavery at White Haven” the National Park Service U. S. Grant National Historic Site concludes, “Grant and his family benefitted from the labors of more than William Jones, however, including numerous enslaved people owned by Colonel Dent and others hired from local slaveholders.”
Fourth, according to Eric Swanger’s “Grant and His Single Slave”: “In 1857, Grant took over management of the Dent plantation, and now had all of the slaves under [his] authority. Because most of the slaves were not field hands, two additional slaves had to be rented from their nearby owners.”
Three. Contrary to popular plantation imagery, Grant worked alongside the field hands he supervised. While that was true, it was not exceptional. Most any slaveholder throughout the South that worked only three field hands labored alongside them.
Should statues of Grant be among those destroyed because of their connection to slavery?
Sources: Slavery at White Haven, National Park Service; Ronald C. White, American Ulysses, 128; Ulysses Grant, Letters of Ulysses Grant to His Father and Younger Sister, 7, 11-12; Eric Swanger, General Grant and His Single Slave; Hamlin Garland, “Grant’s Life in Missouri,” McClure’s Magazine, Volume 8, 520; Ron Chernow, Grant, 101