A Slave in the White House

Historian Elizabeth Dowling Taylor tells the unsettling story of a Founding Father and his slave.

A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons By Elizabeth Dowling Taylor Palgrave Macmillan 304 pp.

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.”

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.

Of course it wasn't just Madison. The same could be said of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among others.

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.

And contradictory it certainly was. “Madison’s study was a crucible of ideas,” writes Taylor. Debates over questions of liberty and justice and sometimes even impassioned arguments about slavery itself took place there – even as Madison’s slaves stood in waiting, treated like “part of the wallpaper.”

At least some absorbed what they heard. Madison was finally forced to sell William Gardner, the slave who accompanied him to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. After being surrounded by talk of liberty for four years in the infant US capital, Gardner’s mind became “too thoroughly tainted to be a fit companion for fellow slaves in Virginia,” wrote Madison.

Did Madison somehow fail to grasp the horrible irony of his own words? Probably not. Taylor does a good job of documenting the intense discomfort Madison and many of his peers felt about slavery.

Madison acknowledged “without limitation or hesitation, all the evils with which [slavery] has ever been charged,” wrote abolitionist Harriet Martineau, who visited Madison’s home and debated the subject with him in person. But like many of his peers he argued that the abolition of slavery was an impossible and impractical idea.

Meanwhile, Jennings was spending his life in bondage, forced to live apart from his wife and children. Despite obvious affection for his owners – Jennings sobbed when Madison died and reports that he even helped Dolley financially when he was a free man and she a needy widow – Jennings plotted unsuccessfully to run away. Later, he forged papers to help other slaves gain their freedom and was one of the organizers of the “Pearl” incident, one of the greatest slave escape attempts in US history.

Madison intended to free Jennings (and sometimes spoke of freeing all of his slaves) at his death but in the end didn’t because he worried about his widow’s finances. (He did include instructions to Dolley in his will that none of their slaves were to be sold without their permission – a stricture she blithely ignored almost from the moment of her husband’s death.)

As it happened, fate – in the form of Webster – intervened and Jennings gained his freedom without help from the Madisons. Taylor’s account of Jennings’ life sometimes reads slowly due to the meticulous work Taylor had to do in piecing together small scraps of information from multiple sources. But as a whole it tells a story that is as intriguing as it is uncomfortable.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Books editor.

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