Surprising our stereotypes: So who was the last slaveowner to be US president?
Ulysses Simpson Grant.
We quote William S. McFeely’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography:
In 1858 he [Grant] hired two slaves from their owners and borrowed one, William Jones, from his father-in-law. Jones, whom he subsequently bought, was about thirty-five years old and five feet seven inches tall, resembling Grant in both age and build, and they worked closely together.
Not surprisingly, when readers learn of this for the first time, their reactions can range from indignant disbelief and ad hominum attacks on the message bearer to a grinning, head-nodding “I told you so.” Yet both responses betray their own anchored stereotypes.
The true student of the past recognizes that every generation tends to interpret history in the light of their own experiences. Indeed, learning from the lessons of the past … bettering our lives by avoiding the errors of our predecessors … and passing along that acquired wisdom to our children is what advances civilization. Yet know that belief and bias share a number of common borders, often blurring those boundaries when convenience, motive, or personal gain influence our judgment.
For those who would vilify the 18th President, consider, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story:
On one occasion Grant was reported to have stopped the whipping of a slave by a farmer neighbor, and in 1859, when he was leaving the farm to go into business in St. Louis and was severely pressed financially, he did not sell William Jones but instead set him free.
Our comfortable stereotypes are indeed, subject to ambush.
And yes, a number of you remembered that VMI Professor Thomas J. Jackson of Lexington, Virginia, organized a Sunday school class for blacks, teaching them to read the Bible and write their names in a society that often did more than frown on those who sought to make slaves literate. Fewer readers knew that Sgt. Richard Kirkland, a South Carolinian, is the only enlisted soldier, North or South, who has a statue to his battlefield heroics in the South … and the North.
Of course hours after this is posted, some of you will remind the rest that Grant’s opponent, Robert E. Lee, had likewise fulfilled the manumission clause in his father-in-law’s will freeing the slaves at Arlington House, days after his stunning victory at Fredericksburg in December of 1862.
It’s all out there waiting to be discovered. We just have to get beyond our biases … our expectations … and those stereotypes.
And we can start with this one: beyond defeat, subjugation, and poverty, the South was left with something else after Appomattox. You see, even today, many Americans perceive racism as a purely Southern problem. Back then, the fact that most blacks lived in the South gave the charge a measure of credence. Yet why blacks remained in the old Confederates states afterwards is a fact often, if not conveniently, overlooked.
To be sure, after the war, blacks did migrate to that “promised land of opportunity” only to find that the North offered no forty acres and a mule, or anything else beyond a legal declaration of freedom. The long range effects exploded decades later as race riots in Chicago, Tulsa, Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Harlem, Boston and a dozen other metropolitan areas, graphically debunking this long held stereotype because racism in America has no sectional boundaries; it is a nationwide sickness.
Yet, as Jackson biographer James I. Robertson notes, “it is the South that has remained the target for accusations of racial injustice. One might say, with unconcealed cynicism, that the South has had to bear the brunt of a national guilty conscience”…far after the fighting stopped