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White House slave had quite a tale to tell

Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, author of "A Slave in the White House," visits the Montpelier study where James Madison died. He was attended by slave Paul Jennings (left). (PETER CIHELKA / THE FREE LANCE–STAR)

Paul Jennings penned the first White House memoir. (THE MONTPELIER FOUNDATION / SYLVIA JENNINGS ALEXANDER ESTATE)




Dolley Madison was supposed to keep her slaves until she died, then free them. But a spendthrift son left her strapped for cash in widowhood. She began selling slaves her husband, James Madison, had left her.

Paul Jennings resolved that wouldn’t happen to him or his family. Working for Madison  in Washington, he was separated from his family in Orange County, and he worried they would be sold and sent to the Deep South.

“He needed freedom now,” says Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, an independent scholar who lives in Barboursville. He set about securing his liberty, and was eventually able to free his children.

That’s just one tale in Taylor’s book “A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons,” published this month by Palgrave MacMillan.

The book has drawn praise from reviewers and scholars. A day after its release, Jon Stewart interviewed Taylor on television’s popular “The Daily Show.”

“We forget that the individual credited with [being] the Father of the Constitution had 100 slaves,” Stewart said on the show.

“Dolley Madison does not come off well in this book,” Stewart told Taylor.

Harvard professor Annette Gordon–Reed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 2008’s “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” wrote the foreword to the 285-page volume. She concludes of Jennings, “His is a life to marvel at, but one that invites deep and clear-eyed consideration of America’s past.”

It’s the sort of story Taylor has been working to flesh out for much of her 22-year career at two presidential sites, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville and James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange. Formerly director of interpretation at Monticello and director of education at Montpelier, she has long been interested in black history.  At Monticello in 1993, she helped  launch its tour of plantation life, including that of the third president’s 130 slaves.

“For so long, African–American history has been marginalized, misrepresented or ignored,” she said. “So when I had a chance, first at Monticello and then at Montpelier, to make a small contribution to telling a fuller account of that heritage  I took that opportunity.

“I have long appreciated that you can’t tell properly tell the story through slavery alone. Slavery and race go hand in hand. And the troubled race relations in our country mean a lot to me.”

Jennings, author of the first White House memoir, “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison,” had long intrigued Taylor. But his account,  written in the “great man of history” style, is mostly about the Madisons.

What interested Taylor more was the author himself.

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.

Born a slave at Montpelier in 1799, Jennings was of mixed race. His father was an Englishman, his mother of African and Indian ancestry.

Today, he is perhaps best-known for helping save Gilbert Stuart’s giant painting of George Washington when British troops seized Washington during the War of 1812. Jennings held the ladder when the canvas, at Dolley Madison’s direction, was freed from its frame; loaded onto a cart and taken to a barn in Maryland for safekeeping. Soon after, British troops arrived, ate the supper  Jennings had set for the Madisons, then torched the house.

A mural depicting the portrait’s rescue graces the visitor center at Montpelier.

When Madison was elected president and the family moved to Washington in 1809, Jennings was one of three or four slaves they took. At the White House, he became a footman. He was with the first couple all eight years of Madison’s presidency, then returned to Montpelier as the personal assistant or “body servant” who attended Madison  until his death nearly 20 years later.

Today, visitors to Madison’s study at Montpelier, where he died on June 28, 1836, hear Jennings’ account of the final moments:

“That morning Sukey  brought him his breakfast, as usual. He could not swallow. His niece, Mrs. Willis, said, ‘What is the matter, Uncle James?’

‘Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.’ His head instantly dropped, and he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out.”

Two days later, Madison was buried. Gov. James Barbour, a pallbearer, stood beside Jennings and heard him sob. All  100 slaves in attendance wept, Barbour later said.


Madison’s will bequeathed his slaves to his widow, stating his “desire that none of them should be sold without his or her consent.” Dolley Madison reportedly promised she would free their slaves upon her death; Madison knew finances would prevent that while she was alive.

But within two months, she began selling the slaves.

She put Jennings, by now a widower who moved to Lafayette Square in Washington with her, on the market for $200. He displeased her by staying longer than she wished in Orange, on a visit to his children.

But Jennings found a way out. “He knew people in high places,” Taylor said.

At the time, 1846, Jennings had been hired out by Dolley Madison to work for President James K. Polk of Tennessee. He went to see U.S. Sen. Daniel Webster, a neighbor of Dolley’s who had helped free other slaves.

They struck a deal. Webster would buy Jennings, who agreed to work in Webster’s household in exchange for his liberty. He’d pay  $8 a month toward his purchase price of $120, Taylor said.

Jennings was 48. Shortly after gaining his freedom, he had a daguerreotype portrait made. Taylor noted that Jennings is the only Montpelier slave of whom there is known to be a photo. It’s on the cover of her book.

There are a couple of sides to Jennings, she said.

“He was often described as intelligent, courteous, well-spoken,” she said. He had excellent handwriting, and used good grammar. He played violin at the White House, including the “President’s March,” and liked to read. His portrait, handed down from generation to generation within his family, shows him holding a book.

He was also a man about town, especially once he was a free man, Taylor said. Jennings’ great-granddaughter, Sylvia Jennings Alexander, told her  that her grandfather (Paul’s son Franklin) called him “a Jim Dandy.”   If he had extra money, he would make sure he had fine kidskin shoes, for example.


In the early 1850s, Jennings networked to get a good job in the U.S. government, Taylor said.

She found a letter of recommendation (in its original envelope) written by Webster  that Jennings passed on to Alfred Chapman, a Madison relative from Orange who worked in the  Department of the Interior. Webster calls his servant “honest, faithful and sober.”

Taylor envisions that Jennings, through his Orange and Washington contacts, thought of Chapman as the key to the highest post a black man could hope for, as a “laborer” at a federal agency. The term could mean many things—messenger, doorkeeper, perhaps even a copyist or clerk.

Jennings worked for about 15 years in the Pension Office, which is where Taylor tracked down the mysterious scribe—JBR—who recorded the ex-slave’s recollections.

He turned out to be John Brooks Russell, an Interior Department clerk and amateur historian who worked with Jennings.  Jennings’ memoir was initially published in a history journal as told to “JBR.”  Russell was a regular contributor to the magazine.

Jennings’ account came out in book form in 1865, the year that the 13th Amendment—abolishing slavery—was added to the Constitution. Taylor likes to think that would have pleased James Madison, the document’s architect.

Madison was aware of the irony that even as he advocated in the nation’s founding days for the cause of individual rights, Montpelier’s slaves knew no freedom, Taylor writes.

He and Jefferson talked a lot about the problem of slavery, but neither freed their  his slaves.

Madison was an exceptional statesman, but a “garden-variety” slaveholder, Taylor said last week during a visit to Montpelier.

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.

“An early Washingtonian, he had an insider’s view of the capital because of his longevity in the city and because of his experience with Madison, even as a slave,” she said. “He experienced, and was witness to, exciting events.”

In a fascinating chapter, she recounts Jennings’  involvement in the largest attempted slave escape in American history, hatched in that neighborhood.

Jennings and other black operatives worked with white Northern abolitionists  to help 77 slaves sneak aboard the schooner Pearl in Washington, which set sail for freedom in 1848. But ill winds on the Potomac River and an informer foiled the scheme; most of the fugitive slaves were sold south. Jennings’ role stayed a secret.

Jennings married three times, was widowed twice, and had 10 grandchildren.

Taylor said “it means so much” to her to have gotten to know Jennings’ descendants, particularly Sylvia Jennings Alexander, keeper of family traditions. The author discovered Alexander in  Albemarle County, not far from her own home. Alexander, who has since died, was 93, but her mind was sharp, the author said.

To see Jennings’ daguerreotype on the wall in Alexander’s living room, to read the family Bible and to hear her vivid stories of “Pap”  was thrilling, Taylor said.


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