A long-forgotten piece of Des Moines history is retold on Pages 811-812 of Ron Chernow’s biography about Civil War General and 18th president of the United States Ulysses S. Grant. 

Chernow’s 1,074-page “Grant” was published in 2017 and sat on my to-read shelf for more than two years until I recently found the determination (and forearm strength) to tackle the 4-pound hardback.

The book is full of insights into Grant and why stories about his drinking and widespread corruption during his presidency, while true, are not the whole story. 

To say it’s complicated is an understatement, which is why “Grant” is 200 pages longer than Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton and more than 100 pages longer than his equally excellent 2010 biography of George Washington.

Tucked into the back of the book are two pages that describe Grant’s trip to Des Moines in September 1875 as he was winding down his career and thinking about his legacy.   

By then, his administration was waist-deep in allegations of corruption that were largely true, although with little direct involvement by the president. 

Public education was on Grant’s mind during those latter years, and much has been written about his views on equal educational opportunities for all, including former slaves, Native Americans and immigrants.

The historic significance of his trip to Des Moines, Chernow explained, was that it produced a landmark statement reaffirming the separation of church and state, “at a time when some Protestants wanted to Christianize the country and some Catholics lobbied for state funding for parochial schools.”  

According to Chernow, Grant’s Des Moines remarks about public education were not planned. Rather, they were the result of fortuitous circumstances.

While in Des Moines, Grant appeared before 2,500 children in Moore’s Opera House at Fourth and Walnut Streets, where he spoke briefly, before spending the rest of the afternoon touring the city with Judge Chester C. Cole.  

“As they viewed various schools, they discussed the tremendous strides the nation had made in free public education,” Chernow wrote.

“The sight of the schoolchildren had stirred some latent impulse in Grant yearning for expression,” the author speculated.  

Because Grant was scheduled to address Civil War veterans that evening, he “asked Cole if they might return to his house early so he could jot down some thoughts for his dinner speech.

“In only forty minutes, scribbling in pencil, Grant drafted a speech on the backs of envelopes and the stray scraps of paper at hand in his room,” Chernow wrote, adding: “It was a historic plea for public education and the need to save the nation’s classrooms from religious interference.” 

Later, at other stops in Iowa, Chernow said, “Grant advanced a broader vision of free education as the most effective means to assimilate immigrant masses and heal lingering wartime wounds.” 

Three months later, Grant returned to the topic of education during his annual message to Congress, which included “a courageous, farsighted plea for free, universal education for black children.”

What Chernow did not mention was that Cole, Grant’s Des Moines tour guide, was a lawyer who was later credited with starting two law schools, one at Drake University and one that later moved to the University of Iowa campus. 

Cole was a member of the Iowa Supreme Court, and seven years earlier he had written an opinion that allowed Susan Clark, a black child, to attend an all-white elementary school in Muscatine, effectively desegregating Iowa schools decades ahead of the rest of the nation. 

There is no record of what Grant and Cole discussed during their autumn carriage ride around Des Moines, but it’s a good bet that they talked about Susan Clark and the impact Cole’s 1868 decision had on education.