A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings
and the Madisons
Written by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
There have been few times in American history when such a glittering array of men stood on the public stage. George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison are part of that august group known as the Founding Fathers. So impressed was Jefferson with his colleagues that in a letter he wrote to Adams in August of 1787, he described them as “an assembly of demigods.”
It is Madison who gets the lion’s share of credit for writing the Constitution. And yet the Father of the Constitution, steeped in the rhetoric of freedom and liberty, owned one hundred slaves. Like others among the Framers, he recognized the dichotomy between preaching about liberty and the ownership of human beings, and he freely admitted the evilness of the practice. His conscience, friends and acquaintances occasionally pricked him on the subject. Yet like most of the Framers, his personal fortune could not stand the blow of freeing them, his racism did not dare allow him to think of blacks as equal to whites and he felt the abolition of slavery, after which blacks and whites would live cheek by jowl, was an impossibility. In the end, he did nothing.
Chief among his one hundred slaves was Paul Jennings. Jennings was born a slave at Montpelier, Madison’s plantation in Virginia, in 1799. Somehow he learned to read and write–no small feat as most states forbade teaching slaves to do so–and accompanied the Madisons to Washington, D.C., where he served them throughout Madison’s two presidential terms. He was also instrumental in saving the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington when the British set the White House afire in 1812.
In 1820 Jennings was made Madison’s personal valet at Montpelier, responsible for his grooming, modest wardrobe and personal comfort. He was also Madison’s traveling companion and was with him as he was sapped by illness and died, providing an important eyewitness account of his death.
Jennings, too, was steeped in the rhetoric of freedom and liberty. Living in bondage and away from his wife and children who were enslaved on another plantation, he made plans to run away. While unsuccessful, he used his ability to read and write to help other slaves by forging passes and freedom papers. He was also involved in the unsuccessful Pearl incident in 1848, when about eighty slaves attempted to escape bondage by boarding a ship and sailing to the free state of New Jersey.
Madison apparently intended to free Jennings upon his death, but ultimately changed his mind due to financial constraints. He instead left instructions in his will that none of his slaves were to be sold without their permission, an edict Dolly Madison ignored. And yet Jennings was kinder to the widow Madison than she ever had been to him, even helping her financially after the death of her husband. In his narrative, the first White House narrative, he spoke highly and affectionately of the Madisons, and it was said that he cried at the former president’s death.
For more than twenty years, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor was the Director of Interpretation at Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, and the Director of Education at Montpelier. A Slave in the White House is her first book, and she has done a masterful job of writing an engrossing history of the nascent United States, reconstructing the life of Paul Jennings, and highlighting the hypocrisy of the Framers. Using a variety of sources including diaries, letters, government records and Jennings’ own narrative, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, Taylor has given us a priceless gift: the story of a black man who overcame ferocious odds under horrific
circumstances to become a free man, pillar of his community and architect of a family who four generations later continues to take advantage of black Americans’ “right to rise."
Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Social Sciences department at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.
A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings