The Madisons and Paul Jennings

James and Dolley Madison owned slaves.  One of those slaves, Paul Jennings, actually wrote a recently rediscoved memoir.  His story appeared in the New York Times.

In 1809, a young boy from a wealthy Virginia estate stepped into President James Madison’s White House and caught the first glimpse of his new home. The East Room was unfinished, he recalled years later in a memoir. Pennsylvania Avenue was unpaved and “always in an awful condition from either mud or dust,” he recounted.

“The city was a dreary place,” he continued.

His name was Paul Jennings, and he was an unlikely chronicler of the Madison presidency. When he first walked into the Executive Mansion, he was a 10-year-old slave.

But over the course of his long life, Mr. Jennings witnessed, and perhaps participated in, the rescue of George Washington’s portrait from the White House during the War of 1812 and stood by the former president’s side at his deathbed. He bought his freedom, helped to organize a daring (and unsuccessful) slave escape and became the first person to put his White House recollections into a memoir.

I grew up in Philadelphia and learned from an early age the story of Dolley Madison, the young Quaker girl who married out of the Meeting, but married a President.  I was taught that she became very worldly.  (I think this was a cautionary tale told to young Friends.) Later, living in Virginia and visiting Montpelier, it was brought home to me that she and James had owned slaves.  What I didn’t know was that she allegedly treated her slaves, including Mr. Jennings, very poorly, refusing to free him after the President’s death.

…In March 1848, the Liberator newspaper published a letter charging that Mrs. Madison had hired out Mr. Jennings to others and then kept “the last red cent” of his pay, “leaving him to get his clothes by presents, night work, or as he might.”The letter also said Mrs. Madison had refused to free Mr. Jennings, as her husband had wished. Instead, she sold him to an insurance agent, who in turn sold him to Senator Daniel Webster for $120. (He promptly set Mr. Jennings free and let him work off the debt as a servant in his household.)

Mr. Jenning left a 19 page memoir of life with the Madisons and at the White House.

In the 19-page memoir, Mr. Jennings, who served as a footman and later a valet to President Madison, recalled the chaotic escape from the White House hours before the British burned the building in 1814.

He described President Madison as a frugal and temperate man who owned only one suit, socialized with Thomas Jefferson and was so careful with his liquor that he probably never “drank a quart of brandy in his whole life.”

Mr. Jennings said he often served and shaved the president and recalled that his master was kind to his slaves. He was 48 when he finally bought his freedom, years after Madison’s death in 1836.

As a free man, Mr. Jennings worked in the government’s pension office, bought property and even helped support the former first lady Dolley Madison with “small sums from my own pocket” when she fell on hard times.

Mr. Jennings’ decendents will visit the White House together next week.  The visit will bring together the family of a slave who worked there in the house built by slaves and now occupied by by the first African American President.  How remarkable and wonderful is that?

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