Skip to main content

The Conversion Of Harry Truman

June 2024
20min read
“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.”

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.

Nonetheless, entering the United States Senate in 1935, Truman immediately gravitated toward the Southerners. They, in turn, accepted him as one of their own. Months before the 1944 campaign some Southerners had come to view Truman as a feasible vice-presidential nominee, and at the 1944 Democratic National Convention Southerners helped conspicuously in putting him across. Afterward Gov. Chauncey Sparks of Alabama said, “The South has won a substantial victory. … In the matter of race relations Senator Truman told me he is the son of an unreconstructed rebel mother.”

When Franklin Roosevelt’s death, on April 12, 1945, catapulted Truman into the White House, the white South felt confident that Truman would find its racial customs congenial. On the funeral train carrying FDR’s body, the Democratic senator from South Carolina Burnet Maybank assured a Southern friend, “Everything’s going to be all right—the new President knows how to handle the niggers.”

But on December 5, 1946, Truman demolished these comfortable assumptions by announcing the creation of a President’s Committee on Civil Rights. He had been moved to act after a delegation had called on him to protest outrages against blacks. He was appalled especially by an incident in Aiken, South Carolina, where, only three hours after a black sergeant had received his separation papers from the United States Army, policemen gouged out his eyes. In Georgia, Truman heard, the only black to have voted in his area was murdered by four whites in his front yard. In another Georgia county two black men were gunned down by a white gang, and when one of their wives recognized one of the killers, both the wives were shot to death too. On being told at a meeting with the National Emergency Committee Against Mob Violence of the blinding of the black sergeant, the President, his face “pale with horror,” rose and said, “My God. I had no idea it was as terrible as that. We’ve got to do something!”


The very next day he wrote his Attorney General, “I know you have been looking into the … lynchings … but I think it is going to take something more than the handling of each individual case after it happens—it is going to require the inauguration of some sort of policy to prevent such happenings.” On December 5 Truman signed an order creating a President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which he directed to look into not merely racial violence but the entire universe of civil rights. To carry out this huge assignment, he appointed fifteen prominent citizens under the chairmanship of the president of General Electric, Charles E. Wilson. Only two of the fifteen were from the South, and both of them were conspicuous liberals.

In October 1947 the committee issued its historic report, “To Secure These Rights.” It found that a gaping disparity between the country’s ideal of equality and its behavior had resulted in “a kind of moral dry rot which eats away at the emotional and rational bases of democratic beliefs.” Furthermore, it said, with an eye toward the Cold War, the United States “is not so strong, the final triumph of the democratic ideal is not so inevitable, that we can ignore what the world thinks of us or our record.”

The committee came forth with nearly three dozen recommendations, including expanding the civil rights section of the Justice Department, creating a permanent Commission on Civil Rights, enacting an anti-lynching statute and a law punishing police brutality, expanding the suffrage by banning the poll tax and safeguarding the right to cast ballots in primaries and general elections, and outlawing discrimination in private employment. It also favored “renewed court attack, with intervention by the Department of Justice,” on racially restrictive covenants in housing and ending “immediately” discrimination in the armed services and in federal agencies. Most controversial, it opposed not only racial discrimination but segregation. In particular, it advocated denying federal money to any public or private program that persisted in Jim Crow practices and making the District of Columbia a model for the nation by integrating all its facilities, including its public schools.

The publication of “To Secure These Rights” aroused a storm of criticism. The chairman of the Democratic committee in Danville, Virginia, wired Truman, “I really believe that you have ruined the Democratic Party in the South,” and a Baptist minister in Jacksonville, Florida, informed him: “If that report is carried out, you won’t be elected dogcatcher in 1948. The South today is the South of 1861.”

In one respect the shock expressed by the South is surprising, for Truman had built a sturdy record on behalf of civil rights as early as 1937. As senator he had twice cooperated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in signing petitions to break filibusters over antilynching legislation, and less than two months after he took office as President he had written a public letter asking the House Rules Committee to advance legislation for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC).

The Florida State Association of County Commissioners found the President’s program “odious, detestable, loathsome, repulsive, revolting and humiliating.”

Yet until 1947 Southern politicians had tolerated such actions because they thought them merely expedient. They assumed that since, as senator, he came from a state with 130,000 black voters, he had to make a show of going along with civil rights bills that were doomed to defeat anyway. Even while supporting such measures, Truman had made a point of announcing that he did not question Jim Crow. In 1940 he told the National Colored Democratic Association of Chicago: “I wish to make it clear that I am not appealing for social equality of the Negro. The Negro himself knows better than that.”

His performance as President had also been ambivalent. He had asked for an FEPC bill, for instance, but then had run away from the fight to get it enacted.

Yet the white South had good reason to conclude that by 1947 Truman had changed. He had done so, in part, for political reasons. In World War II Southern blacks had migrated in large numbers to states, such as Michigan and California, with big blocs of electoral votes, and in the 1946 elections, dismayed by Southern racist demagogues, they had given evidence of drifting away from the Democrats. Even in the South black voters promised to be an increasing presence following a 1944 Supreme Court decision outlawing the white primary. Truman was motivated too by foreign policy concerns. Discrimination against people of color was proving an embarrassment to the government as it vied with the Soviet Union for the allegiance of Third World nations. Probably most important, though, was Truman’s outrage against the mistreatment of blacks. Truman had never been willing to condone denying to citizens, black or white, their fundamental rights, and as President he was expanding his awareness of the need to use federal power to secure to all Americans the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. What Southern politicians thought could be explained only as self-interested bids for black votes actually represented both long-held beliefs and maturing convictions.

Once Truman set out on this new course, he would not relent. When Democratic leaders asked him to back down from his strong stand on civil rights, he replied: “My forebears were Confederates.… Every factor and influence in my background—and in my wife’s for that matter—would foster the personal belief that you are right.

“But my very stomach turned over when I learned that Negro soldiers, just back from overseas, were being dumped out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten.

“Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as President I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this.”

On February 2, 1948, Truman, undaunted by Southern criticism, sent a special message to Congress asking it to enact a number of the recommendations of his committee. Never before had a President dispatched a special message on civil rights. He called for an anti-poll tax statute, a permanent FEPC, an anti-lynching law, and creation of a Commission on Civil Rights. To end intimidation at the polls, he asked for legislation banning interference by either public officials or private citizens with the free exercise of the suffrage. He did not embrace his committee’s recommendation to deprive states of federal grants if they did not abandon Jim Crow, but in keeping with recent Supreme Court decisions, he did call upon Congress to forbid segregation in interstate travel. “As a Presidential paper,” the historian Irwin Ross has written, “it was remarkable for its scope and audacity.”

Once again the white South reacted with rage. A Georgia congressman said his section had been “kicked in the teeth” by Truman, the Nashville Banner denounced his proposals as “vicious,” and in Florida the State Association of County Commissioners declared that “all true Democrats” found the President’s program “obnoxious, repugnant, odious, detestable, loathsome, repulsive, revolting and humiliating.”

No state exceeded Mississippi in the fury of its rhetoric. “Not since the first gun was fired on Fort Sumter, resulting as it did in the greatest fratricidal strife in the history of the world, has any message of any President of these glorious United States … resulted in the driving of a schism in the ranks of our people, as did President Truman’s so-called civil rights message,” asserted Rep. William M. Colmer. Truman, agreed Rep. John Bell Williams, “has … run a political dagger into our backs and now he is trying to drink our blood.”

In a long speech on the Senate floor, Sen. James Eastland charged that the President’s program was an effort “to secure political favor from Red mongrels in the slums of the great cities of the East and Middle West” who planned to defile “the pure blood of the South.” The President’s “anti-southern measures,” he maintained, would destroy the South “beyond hope of redemption.” Indeed, he concluded: “This much is certain. If the present Democratic leadership is right, then Calhoun and Jefferson Davis were wrong. If the present Democratic leadership is right, then Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner were right, and Lee, Forrest, and Wade Hampton were wrong. If the President’s civil-rights program is right, then reconstruction was right. If this program is right, the carpetbaggers were right.”


At the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners in mid-February, Truman got rude reminders of Southern hostility to his program. In Washington at the most important dinner, a table at the Mayflower Hotel reserved and paid for by Sen. Olin Johnston of South Carolina was deliberately left vacant, in a conspicuous spot near the dais. Mrs. Johnston, a vice-chair of the dinner committee, decided not to attend, she explained, “because I might be seated next to a Negro.”

Truman, shocked by the ferocity of the assault on him and recognizing that his re-election was in jeopardy, sought to placate his Southern critics, but he would not appease them by abandoning fundamental principles. After a meal at the White House with members of the Democratic National Committee, Alabama’s national committeewoman lectured the President: “I want to take a message back to the South. Can I tell them you’re not ramming miscegenation down our throats? … That you’re not for tearing up our social structure—that you’re for all the people, not just the North?” Truman reached into his pocket, whipped out a copy of the Constitution, and read her the Bill of Rights. “I stand on the Constitution,” he replied. “I take back nothing of what I proposed and make no excuses for it.”

With Truman unrepentant, the South wrote him off. When he announced formally that he would run for re-election, John Bell Williams told his congressional colleagues that the President should “quit now while he is still just 20 million votes behind.” The South and the border states were going to cast 147 electoral votes in November, said Senator Johnston, “and they won’t be for Truman. They’ll be for somebody else. He ain’t going to be re-elected. He ain’t going to be renominated.” On the floor of the House, L. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina, shaking his finger, his voice trembling, cried, “Harry Truman is already a dead bird. We in the South are going to see to that.”

Sectional animosity enveloped the 1948 Democratic Convention that summer, a mood no one captured so vividly as H. L. Mencken. His dispatch of July 9 began, “With the advancing Confederate Army still below the Potomac, Philadelphia was steeped tonight in the nervous calm that fell upon it in the days before Gettysburg.” On the following day he wrote: “There was an air of confidence among the Yankee hordes already assembled … that the rebels would begin falling to fragments before they crossed the Chickahominy.” Though Mencken had no sympathy for Truman or his civil rights notions, his story a day later indicated that this confidence was justified. When the Southerners caucused in Philadelphia, they revealed that they had little strength outside a few Gulf states, he reported, adding: “After the count of bayonets … [Gov. Ben] Laney asked if there were any copperheads present.… A lone Trumanocide from Indiana then made himself known, and was politely applauded. But there were no others, and the gathering broke up in depressed spirits.”

The Southern Democrats continued to send off salvos against the President, but it did not take long for them to learn that their threat to deny him renomination was an empty one. At the Southern caucus Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina insisted, “We have been betrayed and the guilty shall not go unpunished.” When the roll was called, however, Truman easily defeated the Southern favorite, Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia. Russell swept almost the entire South, but that is about all he got. So mutinous was the South, though, that the convention chairman did not dare attempt to make Truman’s nomination unanimous, as was traditionally done to signify party harmony.


Truman’s opponents sustained an even greater setback over the platform when a determined group of liberals pushed through a strong civil rights plank cosponsored by Hubert Humphrey, the mayor of Minneapolis. “As I walked with the young mayor … out of that hall,” one liberal activist later recalled, “I actually thought he was going to be shot. … It was very tense, very tense.”

The era marked the end of the Solid South. Not until LBJ’s day would the most serious cleavage appear, but Truman opened a fissure that would never be mended.

Journalists and the Southern delegates alike agreed that, as Time recounted, “the South had been kicked in the pants, turned around and kicked in the stomach.” Sen. Walter George of Georgia, in what one writer has called “a splendid Catherine wheel of mixed metaphors,” expostulated: “The South is not only over a barrel—it is pilloried! We are in the stocks!” Having sustained severe losses, “the defeated army,” Mencken concluded, “retired … to a prepared position on the swamps bordering the Swanee River.”

After the civil rights plank was adopted, thirteen Alabama delegates (one of them was Birmingham’s police commissioner, Eugene ["Bull"] Connor) and all of the Mississippi delegation stalked out of the hall. The rebels reconvened in Birmingham to organize a States’ Rights party with the intent of defeating Truman and his program by gaining enough electoral votes to throw the contest into the House of Representatives, where the South would have substantial bargaining power. To lead them in the forthcoming campaign, the States’ Rights party, or Dixiecrats as they were commonly known, chose Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate and Mississippi’s governor, Fielding Wright, as his running mate. Thurmond told seven thousand cheering, stomping delegates: “There are not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to admit the Negroes into our theaters, swimming pools, and homes. … We have been stabbed in the back by a President who has betrayed every principle of the Democratic party in his desire to win at any cost.”

The Dixiecrats constituted a serious threat to Truman’s bid for re-election. He already faced a formidable challenge from the Republican nominee, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, and the left wing of his party had broken away to back the Progressive nominee, Henry Wallace. Truman’s chances, slim at best, seemed negligible if he could not hold the South. But in Alabama the Dixiecrats kept the name of the President of the United States off the ballot altogether. In Mississippi and South Carolina, state Democratic committees selected Thurmond as their presidential nominee. Summing up the situation in the aftermath of the Philadelphia convention, the Chattanooga Free Press wrote: “This should be a day of mourning for Southern Democrats. Their only consolation is the grim satisfaction that President Truman and his unfaithful cohorts are going down in ignominious defeat.”

Truman, though, held firm to his commitment to bolster the constitutional rights of blacks. When an Army buddy advised him, from the perspective of a Southerner, not to press on civil rights, the President responded, “The main difficulty with the South is that they are living eighty years behind the times and the sooner they come out of it the better it will be for the country and for themselves.” He added: “When the mob gangs can take four people out and shoot them in the back, and everybody in the country is acquainted with who did the shooting and nothing is done about it, that country is in a pretty bad fix from a law enforcement standpoint.” Truman concluded by saying, "1 can’t approve of such goings on, and ... I am going to try to remedy it and if that ends up in my failure to be elected, that failure will be in a good cause.”


Truman meant what he said. On July 26 he issued two Executive orders. One, drawing upon his authority as Commander in Chief, affirmed the principle of equality of treatment in the armed forces without respect to race. The other directive forbade discrimination in the federal civil service. On October 29 he became the first President ever to solicit votes in Harlem.

Well before the Harlem speech, analysts gave Truman little chance of carrying the South. It came as no surprise, then, when in November he lost four Deep South states to Governor Thurmond. Louisiana gave Thurmond more than 49 percent of its votes, Truman less than 33 percent. In some northern parishes Truman ran third—behind both Thurmond and Dewey. He fared still worse in other states. In South Carolina Thurmond got 72 percent, Truman 24 percent; in Mississippi Thurmond received 87 percent to Truman’s miserable 10 percent. Alabama, of course, registered no votes at all for Truman.

Thurmond, though, gained no states beyond these four, as Truman astonished prognosticators by sweeping all the rest of the South and winning reelection. Most Southern Democrats could not bring themselves to bolt the party of their fathers to join the Dixiecrats, and they felt even less comfortable with switching to the Republicans, the party of Reconstruction.

The Truman era, however, proved to be the end of the Solid South, at least of a South solid for the Democrats. (To be sure, not until the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson pushed through far-reaching civil rights legislation, would the most serious cleavage occur, but Truman is the one who opened the fissure that would never be mended.) In 1948 four Deep South states had broken away to the Dixiecrats; in the next election, four more Southern states defected to the Republicans. So by 1952 eight of the former Confederate states had abandoned the Democrats. As one scholar has said: “The significant fact is that a Democratic President proposed to Congress the enactment of laws to improve the status of the Negro. This was heresy; the whole logic of the South’s loyalty to the Democratic party was the assumption that the party was pledged to leave race relations in the hands of the states. When the Democratic party ceased to be the party of white supremacy, the deepest basis of Southern solidarity had been destroyed.”

In one respect, his opponents in the South misperceived Truman, for he never wholly abandoned the racist view he had absorbed from his family or his sympathy for the Southern tradition of localism. Even after blacks hailed him as their champion, he continued to sprinkle his private conversation with terms such as nigger. He not only opposed the 1960s sit-ins but thought they might well be Communist-inspired. In 1961 he told reporters that Northerners who went south on Freedom Rides were meddling outsiders bent on stirring up mischief where they did not belong, and in 1965 he called the Selma to Montgomery march “silly” and Martin Luther King, Jr., a “troublemaker.”

Yet Truman’s foes had good reason for thinking him their nemesis, because if he had a Confederate lineage he also felt intense loyalty to the Constitution and the Union. He especially revered the memory of Andrew Jackson, a Southerner but a nationalist. Eventually he was even able, despite his family background, to bring himself to cherish the Great Emancipator.

Shortly after departing the White House, Truman reflected: “Old Abe Lincoln is … a president I admire tremendously. In a way, it’s surprising … because I was born and raised in the South … and a lot of southerners still don’t feel that way about him at all. And that included the Truman family, all of whom were against him. Some of them even thought it was a fine thing that he got assassinated.


“I realized even as a child that was pretty extreme thinking or worse; let’s just call it dumb thinking, or no thinking at all. But it still took me a while to realize what a good man Lincoln really was, with a great brain and even greater heart, a man who really cared about people and educated himself to the point where he knew how government should work and tried his best to make ours work that way. I felt just the opposite of the rest of the Truman family after I studied the history of the country and realized what Lincoln did to save the Union. That’s when I came to my present conclusion, and that was a long, long time ago.… Lincoln was a great and wonderful man in every way.”

Truman’s reading in history and in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights had led him to question the assumptions on which he was raised. He acted as he did not because he believed in the social equality of the races, not because he was “anti-South,” but because he took solemnly the oath he had sworn to sustain the Constitution.

As a border-state Democrat Truman carried within him the conflicts that divided not only Missouri but the country. He had been nurtured on the valor of Robert E. Lee, the iniquity of the Union raiders, the melancholia of the Lost Cause. Only someone who understood himself to be a Southerner could have felt such empathy for the traditions of the South. Yet he also had a schoolboy’s love of the history not of a section but of a nation, took pride in having been a doughboy in the Army of the United States of America, and viewed the Constitution as sacred text. That nationalist theme, a minor one when he was a child, was the one that prevailed in the end. As a consequence Truman permanently altered the character of Southern politics. For the first time since Reconstruction, he made civil rights a proper concern for the national government, and for the first time ever the Democratic party became the main protagonist for the rights of blacks. The South, and the nation, would never be the same again.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.