A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisonsby Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
Paul Jennings was born into slavery on the plantation of James and Dolley Madison in Virginia, later becoming part of the Madison household staff at the White House. Once finally emancipated by Senator Daniel Webster later in life, he would give an aged and impoverished Dolley Madison, his former owner, money from his own pocket, write the first White House
Paul Jennings was born into slavery on the plantation of James and Dolley Madison in Virginia, later becoming part of the Madison household staff at the White House. Once finally emancipated by Senator Daniel Webster later in life, he would give an aged and impoverished Dolley Madison, his former owner, money from his own pocket, write the first White House memoir, and see his sons fight with the Union Army in the Civil War. He died a free man in northwest Washington at 75. Based on correspondence, legal documents, and journal entries rarely seen before, this amazing portrait of the times reveals the mores and attitudes toward slavery of the nineteenth century, and sheds new light on famous characters such as James Madison, who believed the white and black populations could not coexist as equals; French General Lafayette who was appalled by this idea; Dolley Madison, who ruthlessly sold Paul after her husband's death; and many other since forgotten slaves, abolitionists, and civil right activists.
The Washington Post
—The Christian Science Monitor
“A detailed picture of the lives of Virgnia slaves and their interactions with their owners, each other, and the wider community.” Asbury Park Press
“Thanks to Elizabeth Dowling Taylor's enterprise and craftsmanship in rescuing and reanimating this significant and remarkable, but nearly forgotten, American personality, A Slave in the White House is a gift to the early history of the republic and the long story of black and white interdependence.” David Levering Lewis, author of District of Columbia: A Bicentennial History and a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of W.E.B. Du Bois
“[Paul Jennings's] remarkable life sheds new light on the central themes of American history during his lifetime and beyond. Taylor's sensitive reconstruction... yields fresh perspectives on... James and Dolley Madison... the African-American experience under slavery, the world of free blacks in Washington City during the late antebellum era, and the Civil War and its legacy. Scholars and general readers alike will not be able to put this remarkable book down.” Drew McCoy, author of The Last of the Fathers
“Elizabeth Dowling Taylor has presented us with the gift of a new American hero. With precision and compassion, Taylor deftly brings Paul Jennings out of the shadows of history. Writer, property-owner, freedom fighter, husband, and father--Jennings's life reveals the complicated humanity behind the designation "slave." This story will humble and inspire all who believe in the American Dream.” Catherine Allgor, Professor of History at the University of California at Riverside, UC Presidential Chair
“Taylor's careful reconstruction of the life of James Madison's slave valet reveals American history from a different angle. Rescuing George Washington's portrait from the British army, helping fellow slaves escape, earning his freedom from Dolley Madison with help from Daniel Webster, Paul Jennings led a life full of vivid episodes and famous personalities.” Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
“The life of Paul Jennings, a slave owned by US President James Madison and his wife, Dolly, throws fascinating light on both the struggles of a black man in 19th-century America and life in the early years of the young American republic.” The Christian Science Monitor
“Who was Paul Jennings? And who was "JBR," who recorded Jennings' reminiscences, first published in 1863? How did the account get into print? And were there any Jennings descendants who could shed light on their ancestor? In "A Slave in the White House," Taylor answers those questions, and many more. ...Taylor's book brightly illuminates slave life at Montpelier and the very different, but connected, world of free blacks in Washington that Jennings joined upon gaining his freedom.” The Free Lance-Star
“a history lesson many people don't know about” Greene County Record
“useful and informative” The Washington Post
“provides abundant insight, and cause for reflection into a time not so long ago when human beings were treated as property, even ones owned by presidents espousing the merits of liberty. ...an eyes-wide-open, extensively researched look at the politics of slavery, and the widely-held, deeply embedded belief among white America that black America was not its equal. ...frank, engaging and well-documented account of bondage in Washington, D.C. and the south at the nation's infancy.” The Culpeper Star-Exponent
“imaginative and thorough research, careful supposition and heavy contextual description. ...Taylor reminds us of the moral failures of the Founding Fathers, especially their unwillingness to accept the notion that black people should enjoy the benefits of freedom so eloquently expressed in the nation's founding documents. ...This is an important story of human struggle, determination and triumph.” Kirkus in Dallas Morning News
“You might think you know our nation's past, but this book may surprise you. If you're up for a great historical biography, in fact, "A Slave in the White House" will surely keep you in your seat.” Houston Style Magazine
“she describes some of the subtle and not-so-subtle methods that white slaveholders, even including the libertarian Madison, used to dehumanize their "property." In Jennings' case they did not succeed, and now his struggle for a life of freedom speaks eloquently across the years.” Seattle Times
“Even if you are not a lover of biographies and/or memoirs, please pick this one up. The author did an amazing job in researching this book with the help of Jennings descendants. It's a keeper.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer (from Blogcritics)
“Taylor, who has a Ph.D. from Berkeley and for many years was a historian at the Montpelier estate, balances this portrait with a scrupulous unearthing of the plantation's less-than-noble reality...Taylor leavens this morbid tale with Paul Jennings's remarkable story.” The Daily Beast
“What emerges is a portrait of a remarkably willful, ambitious, opportunistic, and in his own way well-connected American whose life came to embody what the Civil War historian Gabor Boritt has called the "right to rise." You could also call it the American dream.” Fortune
Thanks to Elizabeth Dowling Taylor's enterprise and craftsmanship in rescuing and reanimating this significant and remarkable, but nearly forgotten, American personality, A Slave in the White House is a gift to the early history of the republic and the long story of black and white interdependence.
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Read an Excerpt
A Slave in the White House
Paul Jennings and the Madisons
By Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2012 Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
All rights reserved.
"Raised and Nurtured"
On or about 28 February 1801, Montpelier, the Madison plantation in Orange County, Virginia
The old master died in the dullness of February. On their way to the burial in the family graveyard, the house servants passed by the slave graveyard where most of them expected to be buried some day. It was cold and they walked on, passing between the fallow tobacco fields to the east and the original homestead to the west. The Madison family graveyard was located in the backyard of this first home site, the main dwelling long burned to the ground and supplanted by the Georgian mansion whence they had started their third-mile informal procession. Once the household was circled around the open grave, the house servants raised expectant eyes to the new master of Montpelier, James Madison Jr., standing next to his mother, Nelly. There was this day at Montpelier another mother and son present. The mother's name is unknown. The name of the toddler at her skirts was Paul Jennings.
From the traditions shared by elders of the earlier enslaved generations, Paul Jennings's mother would have been aware of the history of the Montpelier plantation and especially of the stories connected with the fate of the first master, father of the man being buried. Ambrose Madison had acquired the land that was to become the nucleus of the Montpelier plantation through the brokerage of his father-in-law, James Taylor. Taylor was one of the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, the expedition led by Governor Alexander Spotswood in 1716 of some of the first men of European background to cross Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Taylor appreciated that a certain swath of land in the foothills, land that would become part of Orange County, was rich for farming, and he patented 8,500 acres for himself and helped the husbands of two of his daughters acquire 4,675 acres together in 1723. His daughter Frances had married Ambrose Madison, and the couple was living in Caroline County, fifty-five miles to the east, when they sent a gang of slaves and an overseer to the property to "perfect" the patent by commencing agriculture and construction, required in order to receive full title. Not until spring of 1732 did Ambrose, Frances, and their three children, the eldest and only son named James, move to the new plantation, accompanied by the rest of their enslaved people and hauling all their household goods. Ambrose would not see the year out. Court documents reveal that he was poisoned by slaves, two men named Pompey and Turk and a woman named Dido. There was much speculation as to how and why this happened, none of which could be voiced above a trusted whisper. Ambrose was thus the first Madison buried in the family cemetery. The slave cemetery that flanked the original house on the other side and farther out may have already received the first slave laid to rest.
Frances, widowed at thirty-two with three small children, never remarried, which was atypical for the day. One mitigating factor may have been the company and support of extended family in the area. Taylor families held a number of estates in Orange County. The kin connections that Frances had with the Taylor elite were echoed by those among the enslaved individuals belonging to Taylors. The woman whom Paul Jennings eventually wouldmarry was born into slavery on the plantation of Erasmus Taylor, Frances's brother. But that union was two decades in the future, unknown of course to the little boy and his mother that winter day; she perhaps holding his hand but hoping not to transmit her anxiety over what might happen next, for the death of a slave master was always a time of tension for "his people." They would have little control over decisions about their futures, including the fates of their nearest family members.
* * *
PAUL JENNINGS HAD A CLOSE RELATIONSHIP WITH his mother, not an anchor every slave could count on. In his surviving letters, he referred to her as "mother" or "my mother," never revealing a name; she lived well into her son's middle age. The preface of A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison states that Jennings was born a slave on James Madison's plantation in 1799. Both Paul Jennings and James Madison had their roots at Montpelier, but only Jennings was born there; in 1751 Madison's mother had chosen to give birth to her first child at her mother's home in Virginia's Northern Neck. Jennings's mother was a Madison slave, the granddaughter of an Indian; his father was a white merchant named Benjamin or William Jennings. What role, if any, did his father play on the plantation or in the local community? Was he passing through, an itinerant merchant perhaps, or did he have a sustained relationship with Paul's mother? If he was more to Paul than the paternal progenitor from whence his surname and half his genetic makeup were derived, there is no hint of it in the historical record. It must have been his mother who told Paul about the Native American ancestry they shared.
The move by James Madison Sr., his wife Nelly, and their growing family to the new brick dwelling took place in the early 1760s. Their son James reported that he helped move the lighter pieces of furniture from the old to the new house — his token contribution. All of the real work, including building the house, was done by slaves. James Madison Sr. increased his status with this fine Georgian home as well as with the purchase of more land and of more slaves to add to the ten men, five women, and fourteen children listed in the inventory of his father, Ambrose. By the mid-1780s, he was a major slaveholder in the area; by the time he died, the Montpelier enslaved population had increased to 108 people. Of that number, about half were of prime working age; the others were assigned to chores for the very old or, infants aside, very young. The enslaved laborers not only worked in the mansion and in tobacco and corn fields but in various enterprises, including a blacksmith shop, a brandy distillery, and saw and flour mills, profitable ventures turning out goods for neighbors as well as for Montpelier itself. A true entrepreneur, James Madison Sr. also diversified his sources of income by hiring out slaves with specialized skills, such as carpentry and blacksmithing.
All this involuntary labor gave the future President the freedom to pursue his intellectual interests and subsequent public service inclinations. Thus it was on a summer day in 1769 that eighteen-year-old James Madison set out on an intellectual adventure to Princeton, New Jersey: he was to attend the college there. A slave just his age named Sawney accompanied him: he was to attend the young master. Most Montpelier slaves never traveled more than five miles from their plantation home, within the distance to the county seat, Orange Court House, or to any of a dozen neighboring farms. This applied to most of the slaves, but Paul Jennings would later be one in a series of exceptions like Sawney who traveled to new and fascinating places with James Madison. If a horse went lame, if a message needed to be delivered ahead, such attendants would be called into action. Their days were taken up seeing to the master's quotidian needs. Their waiting presence, while constant, was seemingly invisible to the elite class and is rarely noted in period documents. Sawney probably slept on a pal-let by Madison's bed or in the passage outside his room at the college's Nassau Hall. His Princeton experience was never recorded.
Back at Montpelier, Sawney worked a tobacco quarter, while James Jr., who could choose his occupation, dithered over what career to pursue after completing his studies. He was tutoring his younger siblings some but mostly moping over missing the intellectual stimulation of college life when a current event captured his attention. Baptist ministers in a neighboring county were being persecuted, even jailed, for their religious practice, illegal in Virginia where the books asserted that Anglicanism was the state faith. Madison had embraced the tenets of the intellectual movement of the day — the Enlightenment — which included religious liberty or freedom of conscience. Here was an issue that a young man of learning could wrap his head around and devote some energy to. In the banner year of 1776, Madison became delegate from Orange County to the Virginia Convention: he had found his calling in politics and never looked back. There in the capital of Williamsburg he also found a like-minded, lifelong ally and friend, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, newly arrived from drafting the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, had been itching to return to "my country," meaning Virginia, to help form its first state constitution. His ears perked up in assent when he heard about how a new colleague, eight years his junior, who happened to be from the county next to his own, spoke up in defense of free and full exercise of religion in the Virginia Constitution's Declaration of Rights.
What about Madison's philosophy or actions related to the right to freedom itself, freedom of person? The Enlightenment championed reason first and foremost, and Enlightenment philosophers reasoned that human beings had a natural right to liberty. Madison, the oldest of seven siblings, was traditionally in line to inherit his father's home plantation, but could he justify owning property that included people? His friend Jefferson offered a possible way out. Jefferson had come up with a scheme to entice some of his closest friends and associates to move near Monticello in Albemarle County, where they could establish a "society to our taste." He had even eyed a particular piece of land with his friend Madison in mind. "A little farm of 140 as. adjoining me, and within two miles, all of good land, tho' old, with a small indifferent house on it, the whole worth not more than £250," described Jefferson in February 1784, coaxing, "Such a one might be a farm of experiment and support a little table and household." Madison responded the next month, the letter written the day he turned thirty-three: "I feel the attractions of the particular situation you point out to me; I cannot altogether renounce the prospect; still less can I as yet embrace it." He added, "A few more years may prepare me for giving such a destiny to my future life." Madison was slowly but seriously mulling over this opportunity (or a similar situation outside of Virginia altogether) as an avenue to avoid slavery's stain. A letter a year later to friend and colleague Edmund Randolph reflects his thinking: "My wish is if possible to provide a decent and independent subsistence to depend as little as possible ... on the labour of slaves." But between this date in mid-1785 and that of his father's will two years later, Madison came to a decision. Despite the "strongest bias of my mind," he accepted a future as master of the Montpelier plantation. By the terms of his father's will, he would receive a handsome allotment of land, including the home estate and the laborers to work it. By striking coincidence, the date on the will of James Madison Sr. was 17 September 1787. His son was not home the day that sealed his fate as his father's heir to the slavery system. He was in Philadelphia signing what would turn out to be the world's greatest achievement in self-sovereignty, or the right of people to govern themselves, the United States Constitution. By 1790, all hesitations were behind him, and he was taking a leadership role in managing the plantation, as evidenced by his authorship of a surviving document dated November of that year and headed "Instructions for the Montpelier Overseer and Laborers." Implying that he was now first in command, he instructed the overseer to "apply to my father on all occasions where application would be made to me if present."
James Madison would, indeed, depend on the labor of Montpelier slaves until his death a half century later. That the position of Paul Jennings's mother was house servant is indicated by her son's role working in the Madison household from a young age. Positions within the plantation big house were often hereditary, and not only was Paul selected to be part of the Madison White House domestic staff at age ten, but from his own reminiscences, it is clear he was making observations from the vantage point of the master's household even earlier. He noted, "While Mr. Jefferson was President, he and Mr. Madison (then his Secretary of State) were extremely intimate; in fact, two brothers could not have been more so. Mr. Jefferson always stopped at Mr. Madison's, in going and returning from Washington." Paul must have been in the master's house to observe this dynamic, which continued throughout the Jefferson administration from 1801 to 1809. Later, when it was the young master's turn to be old master, housemaid Sukey and her young son Ben were in the mansion together. Benjamin Stewart recalled being "post-boy" and carrying Madison's favorite chair between his study and the garden. This is probably how Paul started — a boy under his mother's feet in the big house enlisted as errand runner. Though the only references to his mother in Jennings's letters are passing, one does provide further evidence that she was a house slave. In an April 1844 letter that Jennings wrote from Montpelier to Dolley Madison in Washington, he noted that "mother is well sends her love to you." Such a message would be unlikely unless she was a house servant well known to Dolley.
Jennings accurately described the relationship between Madison and Jefferson. Jefferson actually learned he would be President while stopping at Montpelier during the last week in November 1800 on his way to Washington. At least that was the expectation at the moment Madison handed him a letter with the news that the opposition party that they cofounded — the Republicans — had been put over the top in expected election results. As it turned out, Jefferson faced a prolonged complication when, by the system then in place, his presumed running mate, Aaron Burr, and he were tied in electoral college votes. The logjam was not resolved by the House of Representatives until February 1801, at which point Jefferson officially invited Madison to be Secretary of State. But Madison had news of the domestic sort to deal with as February closed. He wrote Jefferson that he had planned to be in Washington shortly after 4 March, inauguration day, but that "a melancholy occurrence has arrested this intention. My father's health ... became sensibly worse, and yesterday morning rather suddenly, tho' very gently the flame of life went out."
Not until after he filed his father's will at the courthouse in Orange on 27 April did Madison gather his immediate household and head to Washington. Arriving on 1 May, he took the oath of office as Secretary of State the next day. The family lived with widower Jefferson in the President's house until their town house was ready at the end of the month. Three geographical and population centers were contained in the ten square miles that delimited Washington, the District of Columbia, at this date. Two of those were the established towns of Alexandria and Georgetown; the third, Washington City itself, the national seat of government beginning in November 1800, was brand new, meaning it existed mostly only in plan, on paper. Its inchoate condition when James and Dolley reached it was described by a member of the first legislative session, Connecticut Congressman John Cotton Smith: "One wing of the capitol only had been erected, which along with the President's house, a mile distant from it ... were shining objects in dismal contrast with the scene around them ... Pennsylvania [Avenue] leading, as laid down on paper, from the Capitol to the Presidential mansion, was then nearly the whole distance a deep morass, covered with alder bushes." There were dwelling houses only here and there amid intervening stretches of shrub- and tree-studded land, much of it marshy. Among the few habitations Smith pinpointed was the one where the Madison family took up residence: "Between the President's house and Georgetown a block of houses had been erected, which then bore ... the name of the six buildings."
"In short," Congressman Smith concluded, "it was a 'new settlement.'" Dolley Madison would make her mark as the nation's foremost hostess in the nascent capital. This was possible because Washington was a blank canvas; there was no prevailing society on a par with that in the previous national capital of Philadelphia.
* * *
DOLLEY MET JAMES MADISON IN PHILADELPHIA which had been her home since she was a young teenager, and her father had moved the family from rural Virginia to the "City of Brotherly Love" to pursue a career in commerce. A change in occupation was necessary because John Payne had determined that he was duty-bound as a good Quaker to free his slaves. This he did in 1782 outright and all at once, as a new Virginia law then allowed. This meant easing his conscience but giving up his livelihood as a planter. He became a starch merchant to support his family in Philadelphia, but the business venture did not work out as he had hoped, and he went bankrupt. This the Quakers did not abide and expelled John Payne or, to use their phrase, "read him out of meeting." The family tradition is that this so depressed him that he "never raised his head or left his room until he was carried to his last resting place." Dolley's mother was forced to support the family by taking in boarders. John Payne died a broken man in 1792, two years after his daughter married Quaker lawyer John Todd. The Todds' married life evaporated in 1793 when a yellow fever epidemic swept through Philadelphia and carried off a tenth of the population, including Dolley's husband and infant son. She herself barely survived the pestilence that took her "dear husband and little babe to the silent grave" on the same day. She had a remaining son to care for, one-and-a-half-year-old John Payne Todd, known as Payne.
Excerpted from A Slave in the White House by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Meet the Author
Elizabeth Dowling Taylor received her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. Over a 22-year career in museum education and historical research, she was Director of Interpretation at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Director of Education at James Madison’s Montpelier. Most recently a Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Taylor is now an independent scholar and lecturer. She lives in Barboursville, Virginia.
Annette Gordon-Reed, historian and legal scholar, has a triple appointment at Harvard University, where she is Professor at the Law School, History Department, and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. In 2009 she won the Pulitzer Prize in history for her book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Disappointing. Too much about the Madisons and not about Jennings. I would rate this 3 stars.
Our Book Club gave it a 2. Seemed like a stretch to make a book about Jennings and the writing showed it.
A great read that reveals much about some of our founding fathers and a man who truly held little or no animosity toward his master(s).
Sounds like a book that should be put in school libraries.