The Conversion Of Harry Truman

“I think one man is just as good as another,” he said, “as long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman.” Yet Truman broke with his convictions to make civil rights a concern of the national government for the first time since Reconstruction—and in so doing he changed the nation forever.

Harry Truman approached national politics with divided memories and divergent loyalties. He was reared in a border-state county as Southern in its sympathies as any Mississippi Delta town and by a family that shared Mississippi’s racial outlook and held dear the hallowed symbol of the Stars and Bars. Yet Truman also harbored a powerful nationalist strain. He never regretted that the Civil War had ended in a Union victory, and he came to view Lincoln as a man of heroic stature. Perhaps nothing revealed so well the conflicting tugs on him as a letter he wrote in 1941 to his daughter, Margaret: “Yesterday I drove over the route that the last of the Confederate army followed before the surrender. I thought of the heartache of one of the world’s great men on the occasion of that surrender. I am not sorry he did surrender, but I feel as your old country grandmother has expressed it—‘What a pity a white man like Lee had to surrender to old Grant.’”


Truman’s direct ancestors identified strongly with the slave South. All four of his grandparents were born in Kentucky, and when they migrated to Missouri in the 1840s, they brought their slaves with them. Truman’s grandparents received slaves as a wedding present, and in Missouri one of his grandfathers owned some two dozen slaves on his five-thousand-acre plantation. His parents, Truman recalled, were “a violently unreconstructed southern family” and “Lincoln haters.” His mother was an ardent admirer of William Quantrill, the Confederate guerrilla leader who, pillaging Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863, slew at least one hundred and fifty of its citizens, including women and children. One historian has called him “the bloodiest man in American history.”

Truman literally learned at his mother’s knee to share the South’s view of the War Between the States. He also acquired an abiding belief in white supremacy.

Truman’s Jackson County, though, revered Quantrill, because he had his counterpart in James Lane, chieftain of the pro-Union Jayhawkers. Truman’s grandmother never wearied of telling of the morning in 1861 when, with her husband away, Jim Lane, at the head of a scruffy band of horsemen wearing red sheepskin leggings, rode into her farmyard, ordered her to hop to it and cook for him and his men, then killed her hens, slaughtered all the livestock, including more than four hundred hogs, toted off the still-bloody hams, pocketed the family silver, and set the barns afire.

Truman’s family rehearsed, too, the awful time in 1863 when a Union commander, retaliating for Quantrill’s sack of Lane’s hometown of Lawrence, issued the notorious General Order No. 11, which routed all the people of Jackson County, the den of Quantrill’s bushwhackers, and herded them to a Federal fort, where for months they were compelled to live on handouts. As a girl of eleven Truman’s mother, Martha, trudged through the dust with her mother and five other children behind an oxcart carrying all that was left of a onceproud holding. After the Trumans and their neighbors had been evicted, Union forces set the countryside ablaze for miles. In later years Martha Truman would have no compunction about saying, “I thought it was a good thing that Lincoln was shot.”

The women in his family sought to imbue Truman with an intense dislike of the Union cause and its leaders. When in 1905 the twenty-one-year-old Truman, proud of his splendid new National Guard uniform, called on his grandmother, she gave him a onceover, then told him sternly, “Harry, this is the first time since 1863 that a blue uniform has been in this house. Don’t bring it here again.” More than four decades later, when the President’s mother was invited to the White House, one of her sons said that the only unoccupied bed was in the Lincoln Room. She retorted, “You tell Harry if he tries to put me in Lincoln’s bed, I’ll sleep on the floor.”

Truman literally learned at his mother’s knee to share the South’s view of the War Between the States. He grew up detesting the meddlesome abolitionists, decried the racial experimentation of Reconstruction, and sneered at Thaddeus Stevens, that “crippled moron.” He also acquired an abiding belief in white supremacy. In 1911, when he was twenty-seven, he wrote Bess Wallace: “I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman. Uncle Will says that the Lord made a white man from dust[,] a nigger from mud, then He threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that negros [ sic ] ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia and white men in Europe and America.”