ABSTRACT

Ulysses S. Grant was the last US president to own a slave. Ten of the first twelve presidents (with the exception of both Adams) owned slaves at some point, and eight of them (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, Polk,

Taylor, but not Van Buren and Harrison) owned them while serving as president. The last presidents to own slaves were Andrew Johnson and Grant.1 Johnson had freed all his enslaved persons by the time, as military governor in 1864, he declared all slaves in Tennessee free. Grant owned one slave only briefly. The slave, William Jones, was given to him by Grant’s father-in-law, Frederick Dent, in 1858, three years before the start of the Civil War. Grant and Jones and two other hired slaves worked Dent’s farm, unsuccessfully, that year. One of those Grant hired, “Old Uncle Jason,” said that Grant was the kindest master for whom he ever worked and that he paid more than was necessary. Similarly, a white man observing Grant said that he “was fooling away his money paying” way more for the hired slaves’ labor than necessary. He also accused Grant of “aspoiling them.”2 Consistent with a lifelong pattern of “fooling away his money,” Grant simply freed William Jones in 1859, even though he could have sold Jones for much-needed funds. Biographers of Grant disagree on a great deal, but they concur that his action in freeing his one slave was a principled one. Some of the efforts that Grant made for African Americans during his presidency have been interpreted by some as motivated merely by political opportunism. As we shall see later, the historical record better supports the theory that his presidential actions on behalf of black Americans, as with freeing Jones, were based on principle.