The Last U.S. President Who Was a Slaveholder

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013-2014, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2014 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

One interesting piece of Civil War-related trivia is the last U.S. president who was a slaveowner for at least some time in his life. The perhaps surprising answer is Ulysses S. Grant. As far as is known, Grant owned only one slave in his lifetime, and he freed that slave even though at the time Grant was in a dire financial situation and could have made some much needed money by selling his slave.

Ulysses S. Grant

Grant came to own that slave through his wife’s family. When Ulysses Grant and Julia Dent married on August 22, 1848, Grant was pursuing a military career, having recently returned from the Mexican-American War. Grant continued his military service, and Julia accompanied him to some of the places where he was stationed. However, when Grant was sent west, Julia was pregnant with their second child and could not accompany her husband. Grant became despondent while he was separated from his family and eventually resigned from the army in 1854 to return to them.

Frederick Fayette Dent

While Grant was away, Julia had gone to live with her family at their plantation called White Haven near St. Louis, Missouri. Julia’s father, Frederick Fayette Dent, had purchased the 850-acre plantation in 1820, and this is where Julia had grown up. Missouri was a slave state at that time, although most slaveholders in Missouri owned fewer than ten slaves, and many Missouri slaveowners worked alongside their slaves in order to increase their farm’s work force. Frederick Dent was not such a slaveowner. He thought himself a southern gentleman and owned as many as 18 slaves to do the labor at White Haven.

Julia Dent Grant

When Grant rejoined Julia, they lived on some property on the plantation that Julia’s father had given to them as a wedding present and on which Grant farmed and eventually built the house that he named Hardscrabble. Grant labored alongside the plantation’s slaves in the manual tasks that needed to be done, although as the son-in-law of the plantation’s owner, he had some control over those slaves. At some time during the late 1850s, Grant came to own a slave named William Jones. It is not certain when this occurred or why, but most likely Grant’s ownership of Jones was through purchase or as a gift from his father-in-law. The only evidence that Grant owned Jones is the official document manumitting Jones in 1859. In that document, Grant attested, “I do hereby manumit, emancipate, & set free said William from slavery forever.”

William Jones’ manumission

It may be that Grant’s experiences working with slaves and his brief ownership of one influenced his opinion of slavery. Grant’s father, Jesse, was staunchly anti-slavery, but early in the Civil War Ulysses Grant asserted in a letter to his father that the main goal of the war was to restore the Union. In a subsequent letter a few months later Grant stated to his father, “My inclination is to whip the rebellion into submission, preserving all constitutional rights. If it cannot be whipped in any other way than through a war against slavery, let it come to that legitimately. If it is necessary that slavery should fall that the Republic may continue its existence, let slavery go.” In other words, early in the Civil War Ulysses S. Grant, like Abraham Lincoln, viewed preservation of the Union as the primary goal of the war, and the eradication of slavery was important only to the degree that it affected the preservation of the Union.

A drawing of Grant and Bismarck discussing the Civil War

After the Civil War, Grant’s perspective changed regarding the relative importance of preserving the Union and of ending slavery as goals of the Civil War. This was clear in a conversation that Grant had while he and his wife Julia were traveling around the world after Grant’s presidency. In June 1878, the couple was visiting Berlin when Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of the German Empire, learned of Grant’s visit and invited Grant to meet with him. What resulted was a conversation in which Grant expounded on the Civil War. Part of this conversation dealt with the subject of slavery’s role in the war. Bismarck lamented to Grant, “What always seemed so sad to me about your last great war was that you were fighting your own people. That is always so terrible in wars, so hard.”

Grant replied, “But it had to be done.”

“Yes,” Bismarck answered, “you had to save the Union, just as we had to save Germany.”

But Grant then added, “Not only save the Union, but destroy slavery.”

Bismarck persisted, “I suppose. However, the Union was the real sentiment, the dominant sentiment.”

Grant did not relent. “We all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain on the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle…There had to be an end of slavery.”

It is ironic that Ulysses S. Grant is the last U.S. president who was a slaveowner and that he will remain so in perpetuity. Grant’s conversation with Otto von Bismarck shows that he was by no means pro-slavery. Moreover, in contrast to his letters to his father in the early days of the Civil War, years after the war Grant viewed the ending of slavery as a goal equal to that of preserving the Union. Not enough is known about the circumstances associated with Grant’s ownership of William Jones to ascertain why Grant came to have possession of him. But for anyone who doubts Grant’s views on slavery and the necessity of doing whatever was needed to destroy it, Grant wrote the following in his memoirs. “The South was burdened with an institution abhorrent to all civilized people not brought up under it, and one which degraded labor, kept it in ignorance and enervated the governing class. The war was expensive to the South as well as to the North, both in blood and treasure, but it was worth all it cost.”