The Conversion Of Harry Truman

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More than a quarter of a century later, in a letter home to his daughter about dining at the White House when he was a U.S. senator, he described the waiters, who he thought were “evidently the top of the black social set in Washington,” as “an army of coons,” and in a letter to his wife in 1939, he referred to “nigger picnic day.”

Yet if Truman absorbed his family’s and his county’s Southern heritage almost by osmosis, other legacies drew him toward identification not with a section but with the nation. Early in 1860 one of Truman’s great-uncles in Kentucky wrote his brother—Harry’s grandfather—in Missouri: “Andy … I am in hopes that you are not a seceder. I am for the union now and forever & so is old Ky.” The next year he wrote again: “Ky. is not willing to turn traitor yet awhile. God forbid that she ever should. You see I am a union man yet and expect to live and die one.… Are you still in … the union, or have you seceded? Oh I hope not. I hope you have not turned against this glorious union to follow Jeff Davis and Co.”

Truman’s forebear’s fierce loyalty to the Union, though, did not carry with it admiration for Abraham Lincoln. “My old woman is distant relation of old Abe Lincoln,” he explained in 1864, “but we are not Lincolnites.”

Truman’s capacity for perceiving a national interest transcending his family’s devotion to the Lost Cause owed a great deal to the fact that the community in which he was raised, instinctively Southern though it was, turned its face, in a highly self-conscious way, toward the West. Truman was keenly aware of Independence as the entrepôt to the Santa Fe, the Mormon, and the Oregon trails. As a boy he played on the tracks of the first railroad that ran west of the Mississippi, and in the 1920s he became president of the National Old Trails Association, which required him to travel around the country to promote using the routes of the historical trails to the West for interstate highways. On one of his trips he visited Boot Hill in Dodge City and encountered a gunslinger who had faced Bat Masterson. Truman was happy, he announced on one occasion, to be “back home—once more a free and independent citizen of the gateway city of the old Great West.”

If Truman’s family constantly reminded him of his Confederate heritage, it also relayed to him vivid recollections of his ancestors’ experiences on the frontier. His great-grandfather, the son of an adventurer allied with Daniel Boone, is said to have been the first white child born in Kentucky, and his great-grandmother wore a lace cap to conceal a scar from being scalped in an Indian raid in 1788. As a boy Truman heard these tales countless times.

 

But it was the saga of his grandfather Solomon Young that made the most lasting impression. He had first headed West in the “year of decision,” 1846, the same year as Francis Parkman’s journey on the Oregon Trail. A Conestoga wagon master who drove huge herds of cattle across the plains, he would leave one spring and not get home until the next. He was once away so long that his young daughter did not know him when he returned. He went West one year from Independence with no fewer than 1,500 head of cattle, and in the summer of 1860 he reached Salt Lake City with forty wagons and 130 yoke of oxen.

Truman took full political advantage of this frontier past. As he campaigned through the West in 1948, he claimed so many places were spots at which Solomon Young had stopped that reporters wondered how the man had ever made it to Sacramento. In that campaign, the veteran correspondent Richard L. Strout recalled, “the further west he got the more his western vernacular increased. … All the way across the West as his vernacular got thicker he told about Grandpa’s covered wagon trip to Oregon and produced an historical relative or two in virtually every area where he spoke.” Truman’s behavior in that campaign left observers at the time, and commentators since, bewildered about just where he located himself. If in talking to Western audiences he exploited his grandfather’s feats on the Great Plains, he took pains to remind Southern audiences of his Kentucky ancestry and his fondness for Stonewall Jackson.

To add to the confusion, some perceived him to be neither Western nor Southern. A Truman follower could call him at different spots in the same book a man “from a midcontinental state,” “a Midwesterner,” and “coming from a border state … neither a Northerner nor a Southerner.” The last comment is closest to the mark. He was a border stater, a man from Missouri.

On being told of the blinding of a black sergeant, Truman turned pale; then he rose and said, “My God. I had no idea it was as terrible as that. We’ve got to do something!”

But rather than being “neither a Northerner nor a Southerner,” he was both. He was in the position to be at the same time inside and outside the South, able to empathize with its hurts and its hopes but to surmise that its destiny lay in the finding of a place for itself within the nation.