Here it is again, the intersection of Presidents Day and Black History Month. Eight of our early presidents, beginning with George Washington, owned slaves during their tenure in the nation’s highest office. The two I am most familiar with, given my career at the historic sites of Monticello and Montpelier, and as the author of the recently published A Slave in the White House (Palgrave Macmillan, $28.00) are Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Jefferson and Madison owned over a hundred enslaved people at their Virginia plantations and took several slaves with them to the White House. Running the domestic side of the executive mansion was a private undertaking then, and the third and fourth president each assembled a household staff, headed by a French steward, of about ten: white and free black workers, slaves hired in the capital, as well as slaves from their plantation.
Slavery was not a debate. It was a crime being perpetrated on real people in real time.
Ten-year-old Paul Jennings was one of the home slaves selected by President James Madison for the White House household staff. As a footman Jennings set and served meals, assisted the coachman, and ran messages and other errands. Later he became Madison’s personal manservant or valet, and in freedom he authored the first White House memoir.
One enslaved man, John Freeman, served as a White House footman during both Jefferson’s and Madison’s administrations. Jefferson purchased Freeman in 1804 with the understanding, set by his former master, that he was to be freed in sixteen years. In 1809, the year Madison’s first term began, the third president sold Freeman to his successor for $231.81 (calculated to the penny based on Freeman’s remaining time as a slave). This is the only recorded instance of the sale of human property between these two presidents, though Jefferson also sold a woman, Thenia Hemings, and her five young daughters, to another of our slave-owning presidents, James Monroe.
It is easy to see the contradiction–some say hypocrisy–in the author of the Declaration of Independence and the father of the Constitution lording over plantations of more than one hundred slaves and presiding over a government devoted to upholding individual rights while being served by enslaved footmen in livery.
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SOURCE: The Huffington Post
Elizabeth Dowling Taylor