Although the two men had remarkably different life experiences, Ulysses S. Grant and John Brown share a deep connection with Ohio. Both men spent much of their youth in Ohio, with Grant being born and raised in the Buckeye state and Brown moving with his family at age 5. Both men grew up in strongly anti-slavery homes, and both men had fathers who were successful tanners and leading citizens of their communities. In fact, the Brown and Grant families share a personal connection from their time in Ohio.
The Grant family’s connections to Ohio date to 1799 when Grant’s paternal grandfather, Noah Grant, moved his family to the town of East Liverpool. Despite the promise of a better life, Jesse Root Grant, Ulysses’ father, endured a rocky relationship with his father and a hardscrabble upbringing. After losing his mother at age nine, Jesse was apprenticed to various families in northeast Ohio and never had the chance to receive a formal education. He learned the tanner’s trade during his teenage years, learning how to use chemicals to treat animal skins for use as leather.1
Meanwhile, the Brown family arrived from Connecticut in 1805, settling in the town of Hudson in northeast Ohio. John Brown’s father, Owen, ran a farm and opened a tannery, soon becoming wealthy from these ventures. He also instilled strong anti-slavery beliefs in his children, including John, and was an active member of the Underground Railroad in Hudson.2
Around 1814, twenty-year-old Jesse Root Grant was hired by Owen Brown to work at his tannery in Hudson. Grant worked at the tannery for several years and lived with the Brown family. This experience proved to be an important training ground for Jesse. According to historians Lloyd Lewis and Ronald C. White, Jesse wished to eventually open his own tannery and “remembered [the Browns] best of the few tanner families for whom he worked in the region” during these years.3 He also developed a strong opposition to slavery while living in Hudson. While there is no clear evidence that Jesse Grant participated in the Underground Railroad, he later became an outspoken critic of slavery as the Mayor of Georgetown, Ohio, for several years in the 1830s and as an editorialist for The Castigator, the town’s local newspaper.4
In writing about his upbringing in Ohio, Ulysses S. Grant made sure to mention his family’s connection to the Brown family in the first volume of The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. “I have often heard my father speak of John Brown, particularly since the events at Harper’s Ferry,” wrote Grant, referring to Brown’s famous attempt to lead eighteen other abolitionists in a plot to overthrow slavery in 1859. For the most part, Jesse Grant’s recollections of Brown were positive. “Brown was a boy when they lived in the same house, but [my father] knew him afterwards, and regarded him as a man of great purity of character, of high moral and physical courage,” Grant recalled. However, Jesse Grant also considered Brown “a fanatic and extremist in whatever he advocated.” Grant shared the views of his father, stating his own perspective that “it was certainly the act of an insane man to attempt the invasion of the South, and the overthrow of slavery, with less than twenty men.”5
Although Ulysses S. Grant and John Brown both grew up in strongly anti-slavery households and would have been exposed to abolitionist philosophies, their attitudes towards slavery in adulthood greatly contrasted. While Brown’s abolitionist leanings are well-known, Grant’s views towards slavery were ambivalent and indifferent. While stationed with the U.S. army at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri, Grant fell in love with Julia Dent, daughter of a prominent merchant who owned White Haven, a nearby plantation where upwards of thirty African Americans were enslaved by the Dent family. Despite concerns and objections from his parents, Grant married into this slaveholding family in 1848 and later lived at White Haven from 1854 to 1859, working as a farmer on the property. Most notably, Grant voted for proslavery Northern Democrat James Buchanan in the presidential election of 1856 and enslaved a man named William Jones for part of the time he lived in St. Louis. Grant freed Jones before leaving the city for good, but he nevertheless holds the distinction of being the last slaveholding president in U.S. history, an odd distinction given his antislavery upbringing in Ohio.6
For Grant, it would take a bloody civil war for him to realize that the emancipation of four million enslaved people was necessary to end what many considered to be a slaveholders’ rebellion. In the conclusion of his Personal Memoirs, Grant acknowledged that he had disagreed with Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party prior to the Civil War. “It was a trite saying among some politicians that ‘A state half slave and half free cannot exist,’ Grant wrote. “I took no part myself in any such view of the case at the time,” implying that he felt the country could continue to protect slavery in the South so long White Americans continued to promote sectional compromises on slavery. But he acknowledged that after further reflection on the meaning of the Civil War, “I have come to the conclusion that the saying is quite true.” For Grant, he concluded that “the cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery.” It was a sentiment John Brown would have certainly agreed with.7
1 Ronald C. White, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (New York: Random House), 2016, 3-11.
2 Louis A. Decaro, Jr., “Fire Fron the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown (New York: NYU Press, 2002), 12.
3 Quote from Lloyd Lewis, Captain Sam Grant (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1950), 10; White, American Ulysses, 7-8.
4 Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 8.
5 Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume 1 (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885), 20.
6Nicholas W. Sacco, “’I Never Was an Abolitionist’: Ulysses S. Grant and Slavery, 1854-1863,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 3 (September 2019), 410-437.
7Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume 2 (New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1886), 542.