QUINCY — National Park Service historian and author Timothy Good says Ulysses S. Grant should be considered “one of the great civil rights presidents in American history.”
But Grant wasn’t perfect. At one point in his life, Grant was actually a slave owner, but his views evolved over time as he went on to become a renowned Civil War general who fought to end slavery and later, as president, championed the 15th Amendment giving African-Americans the right to vote.
Good, who is now the superintendent of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, previously spent eight years as superintendent of White Haven, the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site south of St. Louis.
While at White Haven studying Grant’s life and writings, Good said he came to know “another side of Grant that very few people know today.”
In a talk Saturday at the Quincy Public Library as part of the two-day Ulysses S. Grant Symposium taking place at multiple locations in Quincy, Good told a capacity audience that Grant was raised in Ohio by strict abolitionist parents who preached against slavery.
His parents’ teachings, however, were in conflict with the pervasive practice of slave ownership and the white supremacist beliefs that existed in much of the country back in the mid-1800s.
Slave ownership “was an incredibly powerful economic force” at that time, Good said. By 1860, 40 percent of all American wealth was invested in enslaved African-Americans, and 75 percent of all American exports were being produced by enslaved African-Americans, he said.
Amid this cultural backdrop, Grant entered the West Point military academy in 1839 and graduated four years later. His first assignment took him to Jefferson Barracks south of St. Louis. While there, he visited with the family of his West Point roommate, Frederick Dent, and met Dent’s sister, Julia. They became engaged in 1844 and were married in 1848 at Julia’s home, a slave plantation.
Grant’s parents refused to attend the wedding.
“To them, this was appalling,” Good said. “He was marrying into a slaveholder’s family.”
After he was married, Grant had several other military assignments before he eventually left the military and moved to his in-laws’ property in the mid-1850s to farm, sell firewood and take on other jobs.
At one point Grant acquired a slave from his father-in-law. But in 1859, Grant decided to free the man, William Jones.
“He could have sold him for a significant amount of money, and Grant was desperately short of funds at this time. But he simply gives William Jones his freedom,” Good said.
By doing so, Good said, Grant had taken “a subtle step back” to the philosophical teachings of his abolitionist parents.
When Grant became a general in the Civil War, he continued to align himself with the “all men are created equal” line from the Declaration of Independence frequently espoused by President Abraham Lincoln.
Grant promoted the use of African-American troops in the war — a concept later endorsed by Lincoln.
At one point in the war, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote to Grant with an offer to carry out an exchange of prisoners. In his response, Grant told Lee that any captured African-American soldiers would have to be included in the prisoner exchange “the same as all the white soldiers.”
Lee wrote back saying he would never agree to turn over any black soldiers because they were considered to be the property of slave owners.
Grant rejected Lee’s offer of the prisoner exchange. “He insisted that the African-American soldiers of the United States army be treated equal to the white soldiers,” Good said.
After he was elected president in 1868 and re-elected in 1872, Grant continued to stand up for the rights of black people to live in freedom.
At one point, Good said, Grant instructed the attorney general and the Justice Department to crush the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina. He also sent troops into some North Carolina towns to halt white supremacist groups that were attacking African-Americans.
Good said Grant was a strong proponent of the 15th Amendment, which was approved in 1870 guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude.
“He said this was the greatest change in American history since the Declaration of Independence,” he said.
Good said Grant’s stature has been steadily rising in recent years as historians take a fresh look at his roles as president and Civil War general.