A Slave in the White House
Historian Elizabeth Dowling Taylor tells the unsettling story of a Founding Father and his slave.
He was a founder of this country, an Enlightenment thinker, and a public savant anointed as “Father of the Constitution” and “Father of the Bill of Rights.”Skip to next paragraph
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Yet James Madison, fourth president of the United States, owned scores of slaves. He was “an exceptional statesman, a political philosopher without peer, but a garden-variety slaveholder,” writes Elizabeth Dowling Taylor in A Slave in the White House.
But if Madison was a “garden-variety” master, at least one of his slaves was what you might call a game-changer. Paul Jennings, property of Madison from birth and the valet who served him in the White House, eventually bought his own freedom (with the help of passionately anti-slavery statesman Daniel Webster), took a job as a civil servant, bought a house, and enjoyed life in Washington, D.C. as a free man.
Jennings also published a short book about his time in the White House, making him the first White House resident ever to bring out a memoir. (Among Jennings’ claims to fame during his White House years: he helped to save Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of George Washington from the British during the war of 1812.)
Because Jennings’ life was unusually well-documented – in addition to his own writing, mentions of him appear in the letters of James and Dolley Madison, as well as some of their friends – he becomes a stand-in for the hundreds of anonymous slaves who lived in bondage to the families that helped to foment America’s revolution. Taylor, a historian who has worked at both Monticello (Jefferson’s former plantation) and Montpelier (Madison’s former plantation), uses Jenning’s life as a lens on this contradictory chapter of American history.