One of the primary issues that I have grappled with in my four years as a Park Guide at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, the place the Grants called White Haven, is the question of what Grant’s personal views on slavery actually were in the years before the Civil War. I do not believe the issue has any direct bearing on what caused the war, as Grant was not really involved in the political debate that led to secession. Nevertheless, given his prominent role in suppressing the slaveholders’ rebellion it is a question that is often raised. Grant scholars, or anyone interested in Grant the man, must tackle it.
In a letter written to Elihu Washburne in August, 1863, Grant explicitly stated, “I was never an Abolitionest, [n]ot even what could be called anti slavery.” In his Memoirs he wrote, “For some years before the war began it was a trite saying among some politicians that ‘A state half slave and half free cannot exist.’ All must become slave or all free, or the state will go down. I took no part myself in any such view of the case at the time.” These would seem to be pretty straightforward statements directly from Grant himself.
According to some, Grant was instilled with anti-slavery views by his father, Jesse Grant. Jesse Grant indeed held anti-slavery views which he expressed in newspaper articles written for an anti-slavery newspaper. As a child Ulysses undoubtedly was taught his father’s political views and those of Jesse’s political friends and allies. Whether or not he adopted his father’s political principles as his own is far more problematic; examples abound of men who completely reject their father’s beliefs and opinions. During the Civil War, fathers and sons often found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Grant’s letters to his father show respect and a desire for approval, yet his relationship with his father was often strained, and his letters show no indication of shared political views. In fact, in a letter written to his father in April, 1861 following the attack on Fort Sumter, Grant began with the statement, “Whatever may have been my political opinions before…” This could easily be interpreted as an apology of sorts for not following in Jesse’s political footsteps.
Young Ulysses never ran for political office, never gave a speech, never wrote a letter to a newspaper, never even voted prior to 1856, by which time he was 34 years old. Grant did criticize the Democrat President Polk’s handling of the Army in letters written during the war with Mexico, and in later years he would argue that the war had been an unjustified pro-slavery land-grab. There are, however, no known letters written by Grant prior to the late 1850s that mention politics, political parties, specific individual candidates, or the controversy over slavery. Grant voted for James Buchanan in 1856, and rejected the Free Soil arguments of Frank Blair and others in St. Louis in the late 1850s. As a result, historians searching for evidence that Grant was personally opposed to the institution of slavery before the Civil War have had to rely on post-war reminiscences of Grant’s family and acquaintances, and on Grant’s actions rather than his words.
However, the historic record is mixed. Grant was reported to have treated the slaves he worked with at White Haven humanely; he was reputed to have paid free blacks whom he hired the same wages as whites; the Dent’s slave cook, Mary Robinson, remembered Grant saying he would free his wife’s slaves when he could (see here and here); in letters written to his father he carefully avoided the term slave, calling them servants instead. He freed the one slave he is known to have owned, a man named William Jones, rather than selling him, however there is only one piece of primary documentary evidence available to historians regarding Jones; the manumission paper written in Grant’s own hand. Grant never referred to Jones in any other known writings. Exactly when, how, or why Grant acquired Jones in the first place is uncertain. Grant’s actual motivations in freeing Jones are also uncertain. See here.
Despite this limited evidence of a personal antipathy to slavery, the fact remains that Grant accepted the role of slaveholding planter-farmer at White Haven until it became economically untenable to continue. Grant biographer Jean Edward Smith described Grant’s antebellum views on slavery as “ambivalent.” In Triumph Over Adversity, Brooks Simpson wrote that Grant was “confused about the peculiar institution” after quoting Grant’s sister-in-law: “Emma recalled that he opposed the institution of slavery, yet added, ‘I do not think that Grant was such a rank abolitionist that Julia’s slaves had to be forced on him.’”
There is no question Grant recognized immediately that slavery was the root cause of secession, as his April 19, 1861 letter to his father-in-law clearly acknowledged. “In all this I can but see the doom of slavery.” The letter, however, showed no personal objection to slavery; only that it was slavery that was causing the disturbance. Pam Sanfilippo, Site Historian at U.S. Grant NHS, wrote in a Historic Resource Study, “It seems that war made Grant realize what slavery really was, and he did not want to see it continued in the country…like Lincoln, he thought first of the union of the states, and what was necessary to keep the country whole…this could only happen with the abolition of slavery…A national resolution to the issue of slavery would, in Grant’s view, restore peace and re-unite the North and South.”
The views of many people regarding slavery changed during the war – some radically. John Logan, Benjamin Butler, and George Thomas come to mind. In his later years Grant would recall that slavery was a stain on the republic. Whether he only saw this in hindsight, or believed it all along, does not change the fact that it was Grant who led the country to victory in a war that abolished slavery. Nor does it undo his postwar record of fighting for the equality of all Americans.