Greatness of U.S. Grant Comes Into Sharp Relief at 200
He crushed the Confederacy as general and the Ku Klux Klan as president, yet he’s denigrated for a quirk of fate.
On April 27, 1822, Hiram Ulysses Grant was born at Point Pleasant, Ohio. He crushed the Confederacy as general and the Ku Klux Klan as president, yet he’s denigrated for a quirk of fate: He owned a slave for about a year.
This is used to discount Grant’s entire legacy, even though we only know this historical footnote because of the manumission paperwork the general filed to free the man, 35-year-old William Jones.
I asked presidential historian Louis Picone, author of “Grant’s Tomb: The Epic Death of Ulysses S. Grant and the Making of an American Pantheon,” what he made of William Jones on the 200th anniversary of Grant’s birth.
“Grant freed him instead of selling him,” Mr. Picone said, “at a time when Grant was practically destitute with a family to support.” In the financial circumstances of the time, Jones was the Grant family’s biggest asset.
The 18th president never sought people to own. The freedom papers show that he received Jones from his slaveholding father-in-law, Frederick Dent, when he married his daughter, Julia. As a child with poor vision, Julia grew accustomed to relying on people held in bondage.
The Grant family, however, were abolitionists. When Jesse Grant offered to help his son, he made a point of saying he wouldn’t lift a finger so long as his son lived “among a tribe of slave-owners.” And the Grants were desperate for the money.
The future general failed at one job after another before the war, ending up so destitute he was reduced to selling firewood to feed his family. Dent saw his daughter marry a man with few prospects, less cash, and no household help. He expected his daughter to have servants, which was why he’d given her four human beings in her youth.
Colonel Theodore Lyman described Grant as wearing “an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall and was about to do it,” but “Sam” often surrendered to his wife’s wishes.
As Louis Picone said, “Given what we know of Grant’s inherent decency, it would not be unrealistic to assume that William Jones was treated with human dignity and freed as soon as Grant felt he could do so.”
We do know that Jones’s bondage gnawed at Grant’s conscience, if not those of his in-laws. At his farm, with the fitting name “Hardscrabble,” town folks mocked him for working shoulder-to-shoulder with enslaved persons.
Novelist Hamlin Garland spoke to several Grant neighbors, writing that one, Jefferson Sapington, recalled, “The use of slaves on the farm … was a source of irritation and shame to Grant.” Sapington mocked him as “helpless when it came to making slaves work.”
Another neighbor, one Mrs. Boggs, agreed. “He wouldn’t whip them. He was too gentle and good tempered — and besides, he was not a slavery man.”
Frederick Douglass expressed this aspect of Grant’s character, saying that he was “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…”
So how did we get to the point where, in June 2020, San Francisco vandals toppled a statue of Grant for his brief sin of owning William Jones? The answer is a bit of supreme historical irony.
After the war, the Southern Democrats, who’d been routed on the battlefield by “Unconditional Surrender Grant,” set about writing the myth of the Lost Cause, sanitizing the reason they fought — slavery — and savaging Republicans in general and the general in particular.
Imagine those former slaveholders who cast Grant as their villain laughing: Their character assassination proved so effective, even those who fancy themselves modern abolitionists believe it.
Yet when Ulysses S Grant had the opportunity, he freed William Jones rather than insisting he purchase the God-given rights enshrined in the Constitution of the United States or sell him to fill little Grant bellies.
Grant’s Tomb bears his quote “Let Us Have Peace,” but I remember other words on the bicentennial of his birth, those in the papers for William Jones, where Grant declared, “I do hereby manumit, emancipate & set free said William from slavery. Forever.”
Happy birthday, General Grant. Thank you for giving William Jones — and four million other Americans held in bondage — the greatest gift of all, freedom.