Of Presidents, Slaves, and Baseball

Friends sometimes write to correct my misstatements in the Friday Good News. Last week I wrote that Trump was not the most racist president ever because some presidents owned slaves. My friend, Craig Wright, didn’t quarrel with my statement, but did some research on it.

That’s not surprising. Craig was the first sabermetrician (numbers guy) in baseball before there was such a name. After years with the Rangers, Dodgers, and work done for other teams, he retired to became arguably the best historian in baseball. More below about how you can subscribe to his “Pages from Baseball’s Past” if you love the sport.

Craig can tell a good baseball story. He is now famous for the incredible research he does on each story, often unearthing pictures or facts not previously known, and often pointing out errors in other baseball sources, such as plaques in the Hall of Fame.

Craig didn’t argue with me, but did some research he usually reserves for baseball. Here is what Craig wrote about presidents and slaves:

”Personal involvement with slavery was much more commonplace among our US Presidents, and for a longer period of time, than most folks realize.

“Our first President George Washington was a huge slave owner, owning about 600, roughly the same as Thomas Jefferson. In his will George provided for all of them to be set free when his widow passed. She did not wait for that event and freed them a year after George’s death.

“Owning slaves seemed to be a great way to win a second term as President. Through 1837, the only Presidents who did not own slaves were my cousins John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, and they were also the only Presidents through that time to serve a single term.

“While JQ Adams never owned slaves and said he would not have it in his own family, he did tolerate slavery in his household, including during his time in the White House. Members of his wife’s family were slave owners and even when they stayed for lengthy times with the Adams, they were allowed to bring a slave servant. A slave servant of his brother-in-law died while staying at the White House.

“When JQ’s wife’s niece Mary was orphaned, she was taken in by the Adams and came with an inherited slave companion, Rachel Clark, of roughly the same age. Rachel remained a slave in Mary’s first 8 to 10 years with the Adams. Mary appeared to get with the program in 1828 when she officially joined the family by marrying the middle son, John Adams II. On the day of the wedding she freed her slave companion. Given the specificity of the timing, this may have been required of Mary to become an Adams. Otherwise the marriage would have turned JQ’s son into a slaveowner.

 “Technically, one could say the Adams were the only Presidents who had never owned a slave all the way through 1850.

 “Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) is generally not counted as a slave owner, but he actually did own a single slave. Tom escaped around 1814 and lived free for ten years before being discovered in Massachusetts by an Alonzo Hammond. Alonzo wrote to Van Buren that he would like to capture Tom and buy him from Van Buren.  Van Buren wrote back that if Tom could be captured without violence “I would take $50” for him. That’s a slave owner. Thankfully it appears the two men were not able to reach an agreement and Tom stayed free, though technically still property.

“Van Buren also employed hired slave servants during his time in Washington D.C., a common practice in the city where the “wages” went directly to the slave’s owner. It was hard sometimes to tell who was who, as census records showed that his “colored” servants were a mixture of hired free people and hired slave servants.

” William Henry Harrison (1841) did not own a single slave during his Presidency, but he had owned many slaves in his past and was clearly pro-slavery. When he was governor of the Indiana Territory he had sought to legalize slavery in Indiana. He also chose a strong advocate of slavery in his running mate John Tyler, who became President when Harrison died in office. Tyler was not only a lifelong slave owner but a proponent of expanding slavery into the new territories.

 “It wasn’t all the way until Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) that we had a President outside the Adams family who had never owned a slave. Fillmore incidentally was the last president who wasn’t of the Democratic or Republican parties.

“The last President who had owned a slave was Ulysses Grant. His wife came into the marriage with four slaves, and Ulysses briefly owned a personal slave that was hard to turn down because he was a gift from his father-in-law. It was still more than Grant could abide and he freed the man less than two years later, early in 1859. His wife freed the other four slaves in 1863, about a year before her husband was named General-in-Chief of the whole union army (Mar 9, 1864).

In total, twelve Presidents were slave owners at some time in their lives. So, it wasn’t until William McKinley, whose term took us into the 20th century, that we could say that the majority of our Presidents had never owned a slave!”                                                 Craig Wright

Rusty here again: If you are a baseball fan or know someone who is, here is a Christmas present suggestion. For only $21 for a yearly subscription to Pages from Baseball’s Past, you or someone else can receive a couple of great baseball stories in your email each week. Here are some websites and a couple of reviews by Craig’s readers. Enjoy:

http://baseballspast.com/order/ to use paypal or a credit card

http://www.baseballspast.com/mailorder.pdf to mail a check

“Pages from Baseballs Past is just excellent. I learn a lot from reading it.” Bill James, baseball historian, former Senior Advisor, Boston Red Sox

A friend asked me what was the best baseball book I read this year. I thought a moment and told him to subscribe to Pages from Baseball’s Past – it’s like a good book but better! – James Boyd, Wooster, OH

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Rusty Harper is outrageously happy because he is retired and living with the love of his life, Pat Callbeck Harper in Helena, Montana. So why does he inflict these ramblings on the rest of us, you ask? Because you deserve it. If you aren't smart enough not to read this stuff, then you have to suffer through it. Maybe that builds character, though I doubt it. Think of all the positive things you could do with the time you are wasting on things that occur to me in the night and then sound strange even to me when I write them down in the morning. Bake a cake. Complain to your Senator. Run for Congress. Do something.
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