Ulysses S. Grant and Race – a flawed redemption story


Ulysses S. Grant, born Hiram Ulysses Grant, was born in Point Pleasant, OH, on April 27, 1822. Around eleven months old, Grant’s family moved to Georgetown, OH.

Ulysses S. Grant was born in Ohio to an abolitionist family. He would win battles such as Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and the Vicksburg campaign. He would eventually be appointed to overall command of the Union army, achieve victory, reunite the Union and become a Civil War hero. After this, he ran for the presidency, and Grant won. Grant won the presidency as a member of the Republican party.

As president, Grant fought for racial equality and secured voting rights for African-Americans. He also pushed for civil service reform and signed many pieces of significant legislation into law.

His father, Jesse Root Grant, was a friend of John Brown’s and had lived with the Brown family in his youth. This abolitionist upbringing in Point Pleasant and Georgetown, OH, did not have the impact one might have expected on young Ulysses (Curt Fields, personal communication, April 18, 2022).

This article will examine Grant’s views on race and how they shifted over the years. We will look specifically at his relations with African Americans, Jewish Americans, Native Americans, and Chinese Americans.

The Role of Race in the 19th Century

We will begin by examining the role that race played in America during Ulysses’ life. At that time, the social structure in America could best be described as stratified.

American society was built on race. Whites attempted to justify this racial divide through law, religion, and science. The Protestant church is the perfect example of this.

The church split into different denominations over pro-slavery and anti-slavery beliefs. Scientists during this time also attempted to use the discipline to justify the existence of such a cruel and peculiar institution. Many white Americans in this time believed that African-Americans were inferior to white Americans.

Black Exclusion Laws

Many states also passed black exclusion laws. These laws barred free African-Americans from migrating to other states before the Civil War.

Northern states such as Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana had such laws.

‘Petition for Abolishing Slavery,’ 1826. The image shows a shackled slave pleading with his master while two children hold up the petition to abolish the slave trade from The Black Man’s Lament, or how to make sugar, by Amelia Alderson Opie. (London, 1826). (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Credit: https://www.historyextra.com/period/georgian/britain-slavery-slave-trade-abolition-act-black-history-david-olusoga/

African Americans

Grant’s relations with African Americans shifted throughout his life.

Before the outbreak of the American Civil War, Grant was not an abolitionist like his father or even anti-slavery. Those views did not develop until after the Civil War.

Ulysses decided to marry into a slave-holding family when he married Julia Dent (later Julia Dent Grant). Ulysses met Julia while stationed in the military in St. Louis. He met her at the Whitehaven estate located in the Missouri city. Whitehaven, however, was a place of enslavement.


Grant tried to win over his father-in-law, Colonel Dent and spent several years at Whitehaven trying to live like the Colonel. Grant became majorly involved at Whitehaven. It was here that Grant utilized slave labor.

He hired at least two enslaved people while farming at Whitehaven and owned an enslaved man named William Jones for a time in the 1850s. Grant later freed the man instead of selling him when Ulysses could have used the money. This has led to a great debate over whether or not this shows that Ulysses was uncomfortable with slavery (N. Sacco, personal communication, April 26, 2022).

On the one hand, Grant did own a man. There is no justifying this, even at the time. However, Grant was uncomfortable with the idea, and many believe he did so because he was poor and had no other choice. When he chose to free Willy Jones, that money could have been precious, but he decided to go for the finances (Curt Fields, personal communication, April 18, 2022).

James Buchanan, Not the Republican Party

Another sign that Grant was not anti-slavery was that he voted for James Buchanan in 1856.

Buchanan was a pro-slavery candidate. Had Grant been staunchly anti-slavery, he could have chosen to vote for the newly formed Republican party. However, Grant decided to vote Democrat. Grant stated that he believed that Buchanan could stop a civil war from breaking out. However, that ultimately was not the case. Grant himself said that “I never was an abolitionist.”

So, in Grant’s pre-Civil War life, we see that his father’s abolitionist views did not have much of an impact. His son, Hiram Ulysses Grant, was not an abolitionist or anti-slavery.

Grant and Civil Rights

However, when Ulysses won the Civil War and reached the White House, his views changed. U.S. Grant supported and embraced emancipation.

The Impact of the Civil War

The war had a significant impact on his changing views. During the Civil War, Grant had 130,000 African- American soldiers who served in his army. This has a substantial effect on Ulysses and begins to change his views. This shift continued when he was elected president.

Grant Administration – A Civil Rights President

As the 18th president of the United States of America, Grant supported the passage of the 15th amendment. This amendment barred racial discrimination at the voting polls.

He lobbied fellow members of the Republican party in Congress to support the passage of the amendment. The president himself would state that he believed the passage of the 15th amendment to be the greatest civil change in American history.

President Grant also created the Department of Justice. This department was given the task of stopping the Ku Klux Klan and warding off discrimination in the South. Ulysses also signed three Enforcement Acts (1870-71). These acts gave the president the power to use the military to dismantle the KKK. Ulysses was ultimately able to destroy the Klan.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875

In 1875, the Civil Rights Act was passed under President Grant. This act only lasted eight years until the Supreme Court overturned it. However, this was still a major move to protect the civil rights of newly freed slaves. Another act would not be passed until 1957.

Grant’s presidential administration was the first to use federal power to enforce civil rights. This shows that Grant truly was the first civil rights president and that his views on African-Americans evolved.

Jewish Americans

The Civil War hero had one of his most famous instances on race with Jewish Americans. During the Civil War, President Lincoln ordered a blockade of Southern ports.

Jesse Grant, the Smuggler

General Grant attempted to institute this blockade but struggled to stop smugglers. Among the smugglers was Grant’s father, Jesse Grant. Jesse began smuggling cotton when the war broke out and he partnered with two Jewish brothers, the Mack brothers, to do this. Jesse went to Ulysses and asked him to allow them through his lines. This smuggling outraged Grant and led him to issue General Order No. 11.

General Orders No. 11

These are amongst the most infamous orders of the Civil War and are one of the most significant stains on Grant’s record. These orders expelled Jewish citizens from his military department in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky.

Jewish leaders went to Washington D.C. to talk to President Abraham Lincoln in response to this. The president then rescinded these orders; however, the damage was already done.

We will see, though, as his view on African-Americans changed his perspective on Jewish-Americans.

A Change of Heart

While running for president, Ulysses S. Grant wrote a letter to a Jewish Congressman and expressed remorse for what he had done with General Orders No. 11. Ulysses went even further and appointed a record number of Jewish citizens to public office.

During his time in office, the president was outspoken against the persecution of Jews in Europe and Russia. Ulysses even attended the opening of Adas Israel with his wife, Julia, and stayed the whole time in 1876.

Native Americans

Next, we will dive into Grant’s relations with Native Americans.

Ulysses S. Grant wrote his wife Julia while stationed out West and stated that he believed Native Americans had been “put on” by whites. He thought that the tribes were peaceful but had been provoked by white settlers.

Ely S. Parker

One of Ulysses S. Grant’s closest friends was a Native American named Ely S. Parker. Parker wanted to be in the army during the Civil War but could not join because non-white citizens were not allowed to enlist.

However, Grant pulled some strings and was able to get Parker on his military staff in 1863. Ely served with Grant throughout the remainder of the war and was with Ulysses when he accepted Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.

Parker penned the terms of surrender with his hand. Grant saw Parker as the picture of blending into American society. Grant did support this policy of assimilation.

Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Col._Ely_S._Parker_-_NARA_-_529376.jpg

Peace Policy and Gold in the Black Hills Under President Grant

Once he won the presidency, Grant had what can only be described as good intentions gone wrong regarding Native Americans.

Ulysses S. Grant created a “peace policy” with the tribes. He supported their assimilation into American society. He did not openly endorse the extermination of native tribes, but he did help them shed their culture and become tax-paying, voting citizens. Some tribes supported Grant’s “peace policy,” but others were strongly opposed. Grant also supported reservations. However, he appointed religious leaders to oversee the reservations.

Then, Congress passed legislation that encouraged white settlers to move westward. This movement westward was a part of Manifest Destiny and the fever that was sweeping the nation to complete America from “sea to shining sea.”

The Gold Rush

This movement westward led to gold being discovered in the Black Hills. This sparked a rush of settlers to the Black Hills, which brought them into a confrontation with the native tribes. Ulysses offered to buy the land, but his offer was turned down. Unable to protect the tribes, he sent in soldiers to move the Indians onto reservations.

However, this resulted in the Battle of Little Bighorn. The battle was a massacre for the American troops. This led to retaliation by the federal government and federal forces and led to war with the tribes.

So, while Grant had good intentions for Native Americans, he unintentionally waged a cultural genocide against the native peoples.

Chinese Americans

During the 19th century, there was a growth in Chinese immigration as a result of the Gold Rush.

Chinese men came to strike it rich. However, they left the women and children behind. As a result of this, prostitution rings began to rise called “tongs.” This led to the forced kidnapping of Chinese women who were forced into prostitution.

This led to a growing movement against Chinese immigration. These prostitution rings that arose led to concerns about polygamy for U.S. Grant. The president was also concerned that many Chinese women did not come to America voluntarily. In response to this, Grant set out against this in 1875.

Federal Immigration Regulation

Grant wanted to federalize immigration laws. Then, the Page Act of 1875 was passed. This was amongst the first federal acts that limited the immigration of a group of people to America. This act also created federal agents at immigration ports and banned the immigration of Chinese women to the United States.

Word Tour

After his presidency, Grant went on a world tour and visited China and Japan. He spoke very highly of the Chinese and Japanese on his trip and tried to mediate a conflict between the two nations.

Again, as was Grant’s policy toward Native Americans, Grant’s policy toward Chinese Americans was well-intentioned but misguided.


Ulysses’ views on race changed throughout his life.

Ulysses stated, “Let us labor for the security of free thought, free speech, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and equal rights and privileges for all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion;…”

Ulysses did not always live up to this. However, he was our first civil rights president and advocated for the rights of many.

President Grant may have been misguided in some of his legislation, but he tried his best to protect minority groups in America. Grant should be remembered as our first civil rights president. During Grant’s presidency, he showed that he was willing to deploy federal troops to protect newly freed slaves and break up the KKK. He was ready to view his flaws, own up to them, and evolve. While Grant was far from perfect, Grant deserves to be remembered for his successes, not just his failures as many “lost causers” have done (N. Sacco, personal communication, April 26, 2022).

Works Cited

Sacco, N. (2022, April 26). Ulysses S. Grant and Race [Speech audio recording]. Illinois State Museum. http://www.illinoisstatemuseum.org/content/ulysses-s-grant-and-race 

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