Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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More on ‘A Slave in the White House’

Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, author of "A Slave in the White House," is seen in the dining room of James Madison's Montpelier in Orange County. A caricature of President Madison's body servant, Paul Jennings, is at left. (PETER CIHELKA / THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

Slave memoirs are rare things. Rarer still if they were recorded not too many years after the individual gained freedom, as is the case with Fredericksburg’s John Washington.

Orange County resident Elizabeth Dowling Taylor says historians have known for years about the mid-19th-century memoir of Paul Jennings, one of President James Madison’s 100-plus slaves, and regularly cited in academic publications.

But until very recently, Jennings himself–the man–had received remarkably little scrutiny.

That has changed now, thanks to years of toil by Taylor, author of the new book “A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons.”

She has made this inspiring man step out of the mists of time, revealing his wit and humor and emotions. And in doing so, the author makes Jennings’ owners, James and Dolley Madison, more real and more fully human, too.

Jennings’ memoir–the first written by someone living in the White House–is precious for what it tells us about a man who spending nearly half a century in bondage, Taylor said.

But it is also valuable because it represents many others who left no such record behind, she said.

“I think it’s important to understand that there were a countless number of African Americans of his day who, like Paul Jennings, led their lives in pursuit of their right to rise but, because of color, had to overcome endless obstacles … to reach simple goals such as having a home of one’s own or a low-level government job–and, hopefully, safety for their family,” the author said. (That phrase, “the right to rise,” was a favorite of President Lincoln’s.)

For me, that’s where Taylor’s book really excels. She paints an incredible portrait in the burgeoning community of slaves and free blacks around the White House, of which Jennings was a significant member, in the years bracketing the Civil War. Lafayette Square has never seemed so alive, or so full of surprises.

In an interview at her home late last week, Taylor marveled that ”So many of the places where Paul Jennings lived and worked still exist today.” The Octagon House. Dolley Madison’s house. The U.S. Patent Office. And more.

Surprising, too, is her account of the schooner Pearl, which spirited away 77 people in the largest attempted slave escape in U.S. annals. The story has been told recently by other writers, but Taylor knits it together with her profile of Jennings and the Washington neighborhood he and other former slaves of Washington, Jefferson and Madison established.

It’s as if the former head of interpretation at Monticello and Montpelier has written three books in one.

Here’s a synopsis from, focusing on Jennings:

“Paul Jennings was born into slavery on the plantation of James and Dolley Madison in Virginia, later becoming part of the Madison household staff at the White House. Once finally emancipated by Senator Daniel Webster later in life, he would give an aged and impoverished Dolley Madison, his former owner, money from his own pocket, write the first White House memoir, and see his sons fight with the Union Army in the Civil War. He died a free man in northwest Washington at 75. Based on correspondence, legal documents, and journal entries rarely seen before, this amazing portrait of the times reveals the mores and attitudes toward slavery of the nineteenth century, and sheds new light on famous characters such as James Madison, who believed the white and black populations could not coexist as equals; French General Lafayette who was appalled by this idea; Dolley Madison, who ruthlessly sold Paul after her husband’s death; and many other since forgotten slaves, abolitionists, and civil right activists.”

As for the story of the Pearl, its secrets had been kept so well-hidden that until a few years ago some of Jennings’ descendants had never heard of it. The tale is the stuff of thrillers, and Hollywood.

But it is making Jennings and his world so flesh-and-blood real that Taylor does us all a huge service.

As she writes: ”Slaves were not nameless, faceless groups of sullen or, alternatively, nonsensically happy people walking to the fields or big house each morning and back to their cabins at night with no real sphere of action or imagination. One key to appreciating our true African-American heritage is to examine personal journeys.”

Her book, which was released Jan. 3, is currently ranked No. 8 on Amazon’s list of books involving African-American history.

The dust-jacket blurbs from two distinguished historians should hint that this is no ordinary work of nonfiction:

“Elizabeth Dowling Taylor has presented us with the gift of a new American hero. With precision and compassion, Taylor deftly brings Paul Jennings out of the shadows of history. Writer, property-owner, freedom fighter, husband, and father — Jennings’s life reveals the complicated humanity behind the designation ‘slave. This story will humble and inspire all who believe in the American Dream.”

– Catherine Allgor, Professor of History at the University of California at Riverside, UC Presidential Chair

‘Thanks to Elizabeth Dowling Taylor’s enterprise and craftsmanship in rescuing and reanimating this significant and remarkable, but nearly forgotten, American personality, A Slave in the White House is a gift to the early history of the republic and the long story of black and white interdependence.”

– David Levering Lewis, author of District of Columbia: A Bicentennial History and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of W.E.B. Du Bois