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Wednesday, April 27, 2022

April 27, 2022: Ulysses Grant Studying: His Heritage

[April 27th will mark the 200th birthday of Ulysses S. Grant, one of the more influential but also more misunderstood 19th century Americans. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for our 18th president who was also so much more!]

To celebrate Grant’s bicentennial, three interesting and important facts about his heritage and birth:

1)      A Legacy of Service: Grant wasn’t quite one of those folks able (and often all too proud) to trace his American origins back to the Mayflower, but he wasn’t far off either: his ancestors Matthew and Priscilla Grant arrived at the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. But that’s not the part of Grant’s multi-century American heritage (about which he wrote at length in his memoir) that interests me; I’d highlight instead the multi-generational story of civic and military service, which includes his great-grandfather (Noah) serving in the French and Indian War (as did Grant’s great-granduncle Solomon) and his grandfather (also Noah) seeing extensive action during the American Revolution. Grant’s choice to attend West Point at the age of 17 was of course his own (as well as his father’s, who wrote to his Congressman Thomas Hamer requesting that his son be nominated for the academy), but it was also very much in the steps of his ancestors, and would profoundly shape every subsequent stage of his life.

2)      An Abolitionist Dad: That father, Jesse Root Grant, didn’t serve in that particular way (he was only 18 at the time of the War of 1812, so wouldn’t have had a lot of opportunity in any case), but offered Ulysses another powerful model for civic engagement nonetheless. Jesse was a committed member of the Whig Party who would later serve as mayor of two Ohio towns close to Ulysses’ birthplace of Point Pleasant, Georgetown and Bethel. But he was also, and most impressively for the era, an even more committed abolitionist, one who broke from the Jacksonian Democrats over the issue of slavery and contributed a number of editorials on the subject to local and state papers. Moreover, Jesse lived in John Brown’s house when the two were both young and remained close to Brown, linking him even more potently to radical abolition. As I wrote Monday, Grant’s presidency was as progressive on issues of race as any in American history, and that seems clearly related to his father’s influence and legacy.

3)      A S-ymbolic Name: My final detail here is both more well-known and less significant than those other two, but I think it’s telling nonetheless. Jesse and his wife Hannah named their first child Hiram Ulysses, with Hiram a family name from Hannah’s Simpson clan and Ulysses drawn from a hatful of prospective names. Ulysses would be known throughout his childhood by his middle name, however, and when Congressman Hamer put forward the Grant family’s application to West Point, he called the young man Ulysses—and then, for whatever erroneous reason, listed his middle initial as “S.” The initial thus literally referred to nothing, but as a result Grant’s West Point peers began calling him Sam, as “U.S.” was a common abbreviation for “Uncle Sam” (a character first developed around the War of 1812). Partly this detail reminds us that the public persona of presidents is always distinct from the private realities; but partly it’s one further proof that U.S. Grant was descended from and destined for civic service and critical patriotism.

Next GrantStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Grant histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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