Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ulysses S. Grant's Birthday

Today is the day I celebrate a shy, unassuming man—Lincoln's most trusted general—who saved the nation from the traitorous Confederacy.

Ulysses S. Grant opposed and personally hated slavery, but was too shy, reticent, and uncertain to say no when his wife's parents gave him a personal slave, William Jones, for a wedding gift. Grant treated Jones always as an employee, working side by side with him when building the little house he made for his wife. (Julia hated the house and refused to live in it because it lived up to the name "Hardscrabble." Don't get me started about her.)

Grant had gone to West Point, but was horribly sad in the military after the Mexican War, when he was stationed in the West, far from his wife and small children. After he left the military, his shy, reticent manner and scrupulous honesty made him a poor businessman. By 1859,  Grant was destitute, unable to feed his family or to pay his slave, whom he always called a servant. Grant could have sold him for at least a thousand dollars--money he needed desperately--but he didn't even consider that. He took him to the city and signed the manumission papers to free him.

Accepting a slave in the first place could be looked at as an act of moral cowardice. But one must also consider that if Grant refused the "gift," Jones would have continued in slavery. Life for a shy, uncertain person can be complicated when he falls head over heels for a high-strung, selfish woman, especially when he was raised by a judgmental mother who disliked him so much that she never once visited him in the White House. (Many people don't realize that Grant was the youngest president in history at the time he was elected.)

I fell in love with Ulysses S. Grant in first grade because he looked so kind, but had such cosmically sad eyes. At some point when I was still little, someone laughed at me for liking a "drunken butcher." It wasn't until a few years ago that I had the courage to read his memoirs and several histories about him to get that straightened out.