Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ulysses S. Grant's Slave

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

As you all know (because I talk about it incessantly) I am a big fan of Civil War message boards, discussion forums, Youtube comment sections, and the like. One of the persistent themes on the various outlets - usually emanating for the neo-Confederate camp, is that the war had nothing to do with slavery...that the institution was somehow - incidental to the conflict. The usual tidbit of evidence cited in support of this claim is that most Confederates did not own slaves.

Well - I have addressed that somewhat problematic contention ad nauseum so I see no need to repeat myself here. But another thread runs through the argument as well - that some people owned slaves and nevertheless sided with the Union. Even U. S. Grant owned slaves, they the war could not possibly have been about slavery!

Well let's take a step back and look at that for a sec. Yes, U. S. Grant at one point is his life owned a slave - one William Jones, who was acquired from Grant's father-in-law in the 1850s. Soon after, Grant signed the paperwork and gave Jones his freedom. That's the end of Grant's dealing with the institution.

Now I am not apologizing for Grant or patting him on the back for releasing Jones. I am illustrating a bigger point. Of course some people who lived in the North or sided with the Union had at one point owned slaves. The United States of America was a slave-holding country until 1865. But singling out an individual one-time slaveholder who fought to preserve the Union as evidence that the war was not about slavery is what I would call bad history.

The funny thing is, if you want to "prove" something in this way it's pretty easy. Step one - come up with an argument before you ever look at any evidence. Step two - go back into the historical record and find a couple of examples illustrating your argument and viola! You have done it.

Except writing history doesn't really work that way. Using this method you can support almost anything. My advice to those who still hang on to the old slavery-not-the-cause stuff: Go back and look at all the evidence (or as much as you can) before you draw any conclusions. I'll bet you will see some patterns emerge. Patterns such as widespread concern over the future of the institution of slavery - something that drove eleven southern states to secede.

Then get back to me. If you still think the war was about something else, we can talk.




  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Keith Harris and Keith Harris, cjceglio. cjceglio said: Taking bad history to task RT @MKeithHarris: Ulysses S. Grant’s Slave [...]

  2. Freelance HistorianJanuary 29, 2011 at 2:37 AM

    Amazing how these neo-Rebs ignore the actual declarations of secession, which state in black and white that they are seceding to preserve slavery from the abolitionist forces in the North, and anger over Northern states not abiding by the fugitive slave laws.

    Here's an excerpt South Carolina's declaration as an example:

    The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

    We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

    For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

    This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

  3. Thanks for this. Don't know how often I've seen the argument online, "but Grant owned slaves!" (plural), as if that microfactoid (even if it were true) proved anything about larger issues in the war.

  4. Just want to point out that although we don't know exactly when Grant acquired Jones from his father-in-law, it was most likely sometime between 1855 and 1858 during the years he was out of the Army and farming at White Haven. The only evidence we have of William Jones is the manumission paper Grant himself wrote and signed in March 1859. For more on slavery at White Haven you can see here:

  5. Also, this was written by the our site historian here at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site:

  6. Thanks for pointing that out, Bob - just an oversight or maybe just a typo on my part.