If Ulysses S. Grant were still alive today, he would be surprised to hear that the first school he attended as boy in Southwest Ohio is now named after him. While a successful student during his formative years, Grant never took his studies too seriously, expressing more interest in working on his parents’ farm and raising horses. The Grant Schoolhouse, which remains standing today and is managed by the U.S. Grant Boyhood Home and Schoolhouse, contains many important stories about Grant’s early education and life in Ohio. (1)
Ulysses S. Grant Schoolhouse as it appeared in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection. https://www.ohiomemory.org/digital/collection/p267401coll32/id/8471
Grant’s formative years revolved around the school calendar and were greatly shaped by his father, Jesse Root Grant. In speaking of his father, Grant recalled in his Personal Memoirs that “his thirst for education was intense. He learned rapidly, and was a constant reader up to the day of his death . . . Books were scarce in the Western Reserve during his youth, but he read every book he could borrow in the neighborhood where he lived.” This thirst for learning led Jesse R. Grant to join the local debating society, regularly write for The Castigator, the local newspaper in Brown County, Ohio, and played a role in his eventual election to Mayor of Georgetown in 1837. “He made himself an excellent English scholar,” Grant recalled.(2)
Given his own lack of a formal education during his youth, Jesse Grant was anxious to pass along his love of learning to his children. A formal public education system in Ohio was lacking, however. Legislation was passed in the 1780s—when Ohio was a part of the Northwest Territory—stating that “schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged,” but no funds were appropriated to construct any schools with taxpayer dollars, and no public schools existed in the state until 1825. As such, most parents who wanted a formal education for their children had to spend their own money to hire a teacher at a subscription school. According to writer Meryl B. Markley, parents usually paid one or two dollars for a thirteen-week school term. Many farmers who lacked cash often paid through barter and offered crops or farm animals as payment to the teacher. Students attended school six days a week and received a mix of instruction that included training in the basic elements of reading, writing, and arithmetic.(3)
Most of Grant’s early educational experiences occurred at two subscription schools. The first school—now the Grant Schoolhouse—was a brick building completed in 1824 that originally functioned as a meeting house for area Methodists. It was turned into a school in 1827, around the same time Grant would have started his formal education. According to Grant, he spent about four and a half years at this school until transitioning to the Dutch Hill School.(4) Managed by John D. White, a teacher originally from North Carolina, Grant’s most vivid memories of Dutch Hill revolved around the frequent punishments doled out by White. “I have no recollection of ever having been punished at home,” Grant recalled, “but at the school the case was different. I can see John D. White—the schoolteacher—now, with his long beech switch always in his hand.” No grade system existed during this time in Ohio and both schools held classes in a single room. Grant remembered that his classroom was a crowded space of “thirty or forty scholars, male and female, from the infant learning the A B C’s up to the young lady of eighteen and the boy of twenty, studying the highest branches taught.”(5)
Ulysses S. Grant’s boyhood home in Georgetown was within walking distance of the schoolhouse that would later bear his name. Grant would learn of his father’s passion for reading and become an avid reader himself at this house. Photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection. https://ohiomemory.org/digital/collection/p267401coll32/id/17082/rec/2
In contrast to many of his classmates, Grant stated that “I never missed a quarter from school from the time I was old enough to attend till the time of leaving home.” Despite the best efforts of his teachers and the enthusiasm of his parents, however, Grant found his early education dull and lacking. He described both schools as “indifferent” and the teachers as “incapable of teaching much, even if they imparted all they knew,” remarking that “I never saw an algebra, or other mathematical work higher than the arithmetic, in Georgetown.”(6) His lack of training in mathematics is remarkable given Grant’s talent for the subject at West Point and his later attempt to become a mathematics professor there after graduating in 1843.
Grant rounded out his teenage years with attendance at two additional academies. He attended the Maysville Academy in Maysville, Kentucky, during the 1836-1837 school year and the Presbyterian Academy in Ripley, Ohio, during the 1838-1839 school year, his last before going to West Point.(7)
Despite his own misgivings about his early education, Grant passed along his father’s passion for learning to his own four children. Amid the chaos of the American Civil War, General Grant partnered with his wife Julia to regularly enlist the children into school every year and offer advice on what the children should be studying. Grant emphasized the importance of his children studying English, French, German, and mathematics while avoiding study in music, a subject that Grant abhorred. In a time when most children did not attend college, three of the Grants’ four children would go on to attend an institution of higher learning. Their oldest son, Frederick D. Grant, followed his father’s steps and attended West Point, graduating with the class of 1871. Their second son, Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., attended Harvard and Columbia University, and their youngest son, Jesse R. Grant, Jr., attended Cornell University. These impressive academic accomplishments were no doubt reflective of a long line of Grant family members who valued the importance of a good education.(8)
(1) To learn more about the site, see Ohio History Connection, “U.S. Grant Boyhood Home & Schoolhouse,” Ohio History Connection, 2022, accessed April 12, 2022. https://www.ohiohistory.org/visit/browse-historical-sites/u-s-grant-boyhood-home-schoolhouse/.
(2) Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885), 21.
(3) Ohio Memory, “Education in Ohio, 1780-1903,” Ohio Memory, 2022, accessed April 11, 2022. https://doksi.net/en/get.php?lid=27551; Meryl B. Markley, “Grant’s First School” in “Brown County, Ohio, Schools of the Past: Legacy of Learning” (Brown County, Ohio Historical Society, undated), 1.
(4) “Brown County, Ohio, Schools of the Past,” 2-4.
(5) Grant, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 24, 29, 31.
(6) Grant, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 24-25.
(7) Grant, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, 24.
(8) Examples of Grant’s interest in his children’s education can be seen in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. See The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 5: April 1-August 31, 1862, ed. John Y. Simon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois