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Presidents Day: Remembering The Presidents With Local Ties

Ulysses S. Grant
(via Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Library of Congress)
In this photograph taken in the spring of 1865, Ulysses S. Grant is seen wearing a black mourning band around his left arm in remembrance of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, which occurred five days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Four presidents have ties to the St. Louis area, and each has left his mark on it.

Ulysses S. Grant came to St. Louis in 1843 after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and farmed in the St. Louis area for six years. He met his future wife here; Julia Dent was the sister of one of Grant’s classmates at West Point. The two were married in St. Louis in 1848. Grant led the Union armies to victory in the Civil War, and was elected the 18th president of the United States, taking office in 1869.

But outside of local knowledge of Grant’s Farm or White Haven, not many people remember much about his presidency.

“Most people think about his presidency in terms of corruption — that’s often how it’s described,” Washington University history professor Peter Kastor told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Monday, Presidents Day. “But I would actually think about it a different way, which is that two of his principal objectives — this isn’t surprising as a general — is he tried to make federal government a reality. First in the south by trying to make reconstruction work, and he was unable to do so, and also in the west. He was the president who used the Army created during the Civil War to finally crush Indian autonomy in the west.”

Grant spent more than a decade in the St. Louis area. He died in 1885.  

President Harry Truman signed this official portrait during his first term in office. The autograph reads: To the Key Club, a great organization in a great city, St. Louis, with best wishes and happy memories. Harry S Truman
Credit Harry S. Truman Library & Museum
President Harry Truman signed this official portrait during his first term in office. The autograph reads: To the Key Club, a great organization in a great city, St. Louis, with best wishes and happy memories. Harry S. Truman

Harry Truman was the only president actually born in Missouri; he was born a year before Grant died.

Truman’s political career had a rocky start. Like Grant, he tried his hand at several careers, but succeeded at none. Like Grant, Truman also had success in the military. Truman re-enlisted in the Missouri National Guard when the United States entered World War I in 1917. When Truman returned to Kansas City after the war, Tom Pendergast was largely running the area’s politics. Pendergast asked Truman, his former neighbor, to run for Jackson County Administrative Court judge; Truman served 10 years in the court in various positions until 1934 when Pendergast suggested Truman run for the U.S. Senate.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had three vice presidents; Truman was the last one. The U.S. entered World War II in December 1941. Roosevelt won his fourth presidential election in 1944, and died a year later, making Truman president.

“Here was someone who, in theory, was completely unprepared to be president,” Kastor said of Truman. “Franklin Roosevelt had really excluded him from decision-making during his brief time as vice president. Suddenly he’s president. He’s got to decide to drop the bomb. He’s got to try to coordinate post-war policy, both domestic and foreign.

“With Truman, what’s striking is he really rose to the challenge of being president,” Kastor said. “Looking back at Truman, a lot of decisions he made about how to think about a postwar America turned out to be rather prudent decisions.”

Truman squeaked out a re-election win 1948. The iconic photo of Truman holding an early edition of the Chicago Tribune with the infamous “Dewey defeats Truman” headline was taken at Union Station in St. Louis.

Abraham Lincoln’s Kentucky and Illinois upbringing shaped his life and presidency, Kastor said.

“Lincoln really saw himself as somebody from this region. His vision of what the United States was, what it should be, was very much rooted in the experiences of people from states like Illinois and Missouri: The dangers he saw, his absolute commitment to the union. But also as an Illinois resident, his opposition to the expansion of slavery was something also that people of Illinois felt very strongly about, even as people in Missouri were divided by this,” he said.

Lincoln became the 16th president in 1861, the same year the Civil War started. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves within the Confederacy, in 1863. But slavery was not an issue of equality for Lincoln, Kastor said.

“Lincoln himself, throughout much of his life like many residents of Illinois, was a racial supremacist. Many white residents of Illinois were very pleased that there was no slavery in the state, but they also were opposed to the arrival of free blacks in the state,” Kastor said. “Lincoln comes to wanting to abolish slavery very late in his career. His principal concern was about the expansion of slavery. His fear, like that of many white northerners, was that a small number of white southerners would become so powerful in politics, in wealth, in everything, they would become so powerful in their possession of slaves that it would crush democracy and opportunity as northerners like Lincoln understood it.”

Missouri and even Illinois wouldn’t exist as they do today without President Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president. During Jefferson’s presidency, both Illinois and Missouri were federal territories. Jefferson directly governed both, selecting their first governors.

“Missouri is part of the United States because of Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte,” Kastor said. “In 1803, Jefferson wanted to purchase what is now New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but the French government imposed this massive Louisiana Purchase onto the United States. Jefferson got comfortable with that pretty quickly and began to imagine what it would mean for settlers to move to it.”

Jefferson also set up early jurisdictions, making St. Louis the jumping-off point for those ready to settle and explore the west, Kastor said.

“It was Jefferson who determined that the center of that government would be at St. Louis and the focus of U.S. efforts would be from St. Louis heading west rather than spending a lot of time focusing on settlement immediately south or immediately north,” Kastor said.

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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