Paul Jennings, born in 1799, was a remarkable American. He came to Washington at age 10, when the nation's capital was more a plan on paper than a city of magnificent national edifices. He lived in the White House. He helped save the iconic portrait of Gen. George Washington from the flames of the British assault on DC in 1812. He wrote the 1st White House memoir. He participated in the largest attempt of slaves to flee for freedom in the nation's history.
And he accomplished much of this as a Black slave, owned by both President James Madison and later by Madison's wife, Dolley, and eventually freed with financial help from the great American statesman and orator Daniel Webster.
Today, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, came to the National Archives to talk about her book A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madison and provide insights into the life and deeds of Madison's manservant.
Jennings was born in Virginia, one of about 100 slaves Madison held at his Montpelier estate. He moved with Madison as his manservant to the White House. After Madison's death, Dolley was supposed to free Jennings, but she reneged on the deal. He was able to purchase his freedom in 1845 and worked to free the rest of the members of his family. In his 1st year of freedom, he helped 77 slaves in DC unsuccessfully attempt to flee to freedom in the North hidden aboard the schooner "The Pearl." In 1865, he wrote A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison, a book which historians agree is the 1st White House memoir. When he died in 1874 after a 2nd career as a paid governmental worker, he owned not 1, but 2 homes at the corner of L and 14th Street in Washington.
"(Jennings') story is one of determined courage and a successful pursuit of the right to rise, one of the fundamental cornerstones of the American Dream," Taylor said."Sometimes, we think of slaves in the collective, but Jennings' story shows that each slave was an individual with their own talents and desires."
During the question and answer period, Taylor was asked how Madison, and indeed George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, could have been president of a country founded on freedom and still have held slaves.
"There's no direct answer," Taylor said. "Today, we look at slavery as a moral issue, but they (the founding Presidents) knew it as a moral issue, too."
For his part, Madison called slavery "an evil of great magnitude no matter what way you look at it."
But the 4th president, like his slave-owning predecessors, was still a man trapped by the conventions and mores of his time. "He may have felt it was a great blot, but he could not envision a pluralistic society (made up of Whites and Blacks). He felt 'we can't share our country with them.'''
Madison favored what he called a double operation. In his view, any emancipation would have to be joined with the transportation of America's Black populace to western Africa for colonization. "As immoral and shameful as he thought slavery was, he put up with it," Taylor said.
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