A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons

by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor

Hardcover, 2012

Status

Available

Publication

St. Martin's Press (2012), Edition: First Edition first Printing, 336 pages

Description

Chronicles the life of a former slave to James and Dolley Madison, tracing his early years on their plantation, his service in the White House household staff and post-emancipation achievements as a memoirist.

User reviews

LibraryThing member queencersei
Paul Jennings was born a slave at the beginning of the 19th century at Montpelier, a Virginia plantation owned by James Madison, America's fourth President. Eventually Paul would become Madison's personal body servant, accompanying him and his wife Dolly to the White House, where he continued to serve as slave. Jennings was witness to an astonishing amount of history. He was there when Dolly famously saved the great portrait of George Washington. Though Dolly gets all the credit it was in fact her slaves who did the actual saving. He lived through the British invasion of Washington, probably assisted other slaves in escaping and even lived beyond the Civil War and was able to see slavery abolished.

Jennings is truly a remarkable and deeply fascinating person. He was able to buy his own freedom, help free his children, secured a lucrative position at the U.S. Patent Office and owned his own property. His success is especially interesting when contrasted with Payne, Dolly Madison's only child. Born into great privilege, with every advantage, Payne was never successful at anything, never married and died young as a hopeless alcoholic.

It has become common to laud our founder's as Great Men, who were somehow superhuman in their intelligence and abilities. But the founders were all too often very human. They owned fellow human beings and refused to grant them their freedom, though they wrote beautifully about the evils of slavery and the degradation it caused to both races. Virginia founders such as Jefferson and Madison in particular lived lavish lifestyles far beyond their means and in the end, it was the slaves who suffered for it. A Slave in the White House should be a must read for anyone studying either the lives of the Presidents in general, the founders in particular or early American history.
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LibraryThing member jmchshannon
A Slave in the White House is not another diatribe against the evils of slavery. It existed, it sucked, it divided the country, and it left lasting scars on entire generations past, present, and future. Rather, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor's focus is the extraordinary story of Paul Jennings, a man born into slavery to one of the most important Founding Fathers but who died a free man. Along the way, Jennings had close dealings with some of the most powerful people in the country. Ms. Taylor explores Jennings' journey from slavery to freedom while taking a closer look at each of the political powers-that-be that held such sway over Jennings and his family.

In many ways, Paul Jennings was a privileged man. Yes, he was born into slavery and had minimal freedoms or choices throughout a majority of his lifetime, and there is nothing that can ever remedy that. However, through his role as personal valet and butler, he learned to read and write and was privy to a myriad of discussions among some of the most brilliant minds. He wore sumptuous clothes, and he traveled with the Madison family around the country. How many other people from this era, slave or free, could same the same? How many others, free or slaves, never learned to read, let alone write, and never stepped foot outside the town in which she or he was born? The fact of the matter is that even as a slave, Jennings was among the privileged few. Jennings' story is extraordinary not only because of the many benefits he received as a slave that helped him obtain his freedom and become a productive member of society later in life but because of the people with whom he interacted and who helped him obtain his freedom.

The research in A Slave in the White House appears thorough and well-documented, although at times it does read like an advertisement for genealogical websites. Unfortunately though, Ms. Taylor fails to maintain the neutrality that is essential to biographical writing. While Jennings may have never spoken ill about the Madison family, especially Dolley, Ms. Taylor does not have the same qualms; in fact, her opinion of Dolley Madison is blatantly obvious. She makes her opinions known about Madison's hypocrisy, about Dolley's pretentiousness, and about Daniel Webster's unwillingness to vocalize and champion his opinion about slavery. Along a similar vein, when documentation does not exist, Ms. Taylor inserts much of her own feelings and opinions. For example, when discussing Jennings' frame of mind regarding his separation from his family, Ms. Taylor adds conjecture, assuming that Jennings felt a certain way even though there is nothing to prove her claim. This direct involvement into the narrative by the author is both disconcerting and disruptive, and it makes a reader question just how much of the narrative is actually true.

All negatives aside, A Slave in the White House is a fascinating inside look at an era that changed the face of the nation, at a subject that continues to divide the country, and at the most powerful and influential men and women the country has ever seen. It is an interesting read from a purely historical perspective; as a biography, it leaves a reader wanting. When Ms. Taylor uses Jennings' own words, the story pops with authenticity. His is a viewpoint that is exclusive and rare, and he sheds new light onto such famous historical figures. Unfortunately, the story falters quite a bit when Ms. Taylor deviates from Jennings' story. At these points, there is too much hypothesis on the part of Ms. Taylor, and the book becomes more of an editorial than a biography. Still, Jennings' story is worth discovering and well worth the time it takes to overcome the novel's deficiencies.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to Palgrave Macmillan for my review copy!
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LibraryThing member nluvwithx
Taylor and Gordon-Reed provided some fantastic historical content of how people of color persevered despite conditions of being enslaved. Paul jennings was an extraordinary man doing extraordinary things to encourage people of color to succeed. His lineage has graceful taken the reigns and exceleed one generation after another. He traveled during a time when it was believed that once slaves where brought to America they did not travel outside the country. Jennings was loyal, faithful, and endeared by the Madisons. Even though I was unaware of the review copy I am a lover of history and sought to discover what the "slaves in the White House" did while serving the president. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommended it!! HIGHLY!!… (more)
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
A remarkable story that offers fascinating insight into slavery from the perspectives of Paul Jennings, the enslaved, and his enslavers, the Madisons.
LibraryThing member walkonmyearth
Though I would have appreciated better organization of the historic material and events, once I took the mindset of 'listening to an elder reminisce', I was able to enjoy 'A Slave in the White House'. The author has definitely done far-reaching research into material not before shared in the history of slavery. I am grateful for the truths and facts Elizabeth Dowling Taylor puts before the reader; some clear up myths, some opened my eyes to the deeper relationships between white and Black, and owner and slave, and a reminder of how much and how deeply whites' selfish desire slashed lives and families of those they chose to own. I hope that history classes will teach the truth of our founding fathers and that we all question whether our leaders have the courage and the will to live what they preach; live by the laws they enact. I knew much of the background, but Taylor, through research, especially of James Madison's slave, Paul Jennings, added the personal. It's the personal that makes history come alive for me. Though much of the 'fill-in' bits of slavery and how whites justified owning other humans left me gagging, I appreciated that Taylor included that conflict, also.… (more)
LibraryThing member Carolee888
I liked the opening of the story where we are introduced to Paul Jennings who was born as a slave on the future President James Madison's plantation. There was a striking contrast drawn between the slave, Paul whose family had been at Montpelier for the third and fourth generation and the son of James and Dolley Madison, Payne. Paul was ten years old when Payne was a toddler when Madison was the Secretary of the State. Of course their lives were vastly different in what they experienced, what they wore, where they slept and particurly how they were treated. Payne was seemed spoiled and given everything he wanted and that did not come out alright in the future. Paul thrived intellectually and morally despite many deprivations.


What I didn't like about this book was the tremendous amount of details about Dolley. I wished that I could push aside all the details on her entertaining and concentrate on the relationship between James Madison and Paul Jennings. Dolley deserves to be in this book of course because she was famous then and still is now but I felt there was a little too much of her. I started to get tired of reading about her but I stuck it out, and I was felt that I learned quite a bite later on in this book. Paul Jennings' character stood out and his desire to get ahead, learn, learn, learn and later to help his children as much as he could.

President James Madison's views on human freedom pushed against what he had learned from his father and grandfather. There seemed to be some torment in his conflicting ideas. With Dolley, it seemed simpler, slaves are possessions and that is it. I kept wondering what would have happened if he had not married Dolley, if he had married someone who saw the evils of slavery clearly and spoke against it.

The author, Elizabeth Doling Taylor fills the book with details about slavery especially in the Washington D.C area and Montpelier. After the coverage of Dolley's tremendous amount of entertaining, the book regained its life and provides a mirrot to the past.

The book could not have been written if Paul Jennings had not written his "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison. I came away from the book with a load of admiration and respect for Paul Jennings. He took chances, he showed forgiveness and he had a great deal of foresight.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in United States History and the tragedy of slavery with the recommendation to keep reading when passing through the Dolley passages.

I received this book as a part of the Amazon Vine Program but that in no way influenced my review.
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LibraryThing member gofergrl84
Paul Jennings was a slave belonging to President Madison and served Madison during his presidency until his death. After becoming free, Jennings wrote a short memoir about his experiences. The author uses this memoir as her starting point and examines the era Jennings lived in, the events he witnessed and the part he played in America's history. This book offers a look at James and Dolley Madison as seen through the eyes of their slave. This is an interesting book, fairly concise and an quick read.… (more)
LibraryThing member carl.rollyson
When James Madison died, he still owned about one hundred slaves. He freed none of them, not even Paul Jennings, his valet. Jennings could read and write, and in fact published the first White House memoir, declaring that Madison was "one of the best men who ever lived." Modern biographers of Madison, such as Richard Brookhiser and Jeff Broadwater, have frankly acknowledged the shocking truth that such a politically astute and sensitive founding father utterly failed to address the problem of slavery seriously. But most, including not only Mr. Brookhiser and Mr. Broadwater, but also Kevin R. C. Gutzman, Andrew Burstein, and Nancy Isenberg, treat the issue of slavery as a thing apart, in separate chapters, instead dealing with the place of the "peculiar institution" in Madison's life in the years after he left the presidency.

And yet there never was a time when James Madison (1751 - 1836), a third-generation slave owner, did not believe slavery was evil -- or a time when he did not recognize the capabilities of African Americans. In 1791, Madison wrote admiringly about the "industry & good management" of a free African American landowner who could read, keep accounts, and supervise six white hired men on a 2,500-acre farm. In April 1800, Madison dined with Christopher McPherson, a confident and free African American, who came as a guest to Madison's plantation home, Montpelier, to deliver books and letters that Madison and Jefferson sent to each other. During Madison's terms as president, he often heard out his private secretary, Edward Coles, who objected to slavery as a violation of the natural rights doctrine that Jefferson and Madison espoused. In 1816, Jesse Torrey, a zealous abolitionist visited Montpelier and treated Madison to a tirade against slavery, afterwards sending a letter of apology -- only to receive, in reply, a letter from Madison saying no apology was necessary. In 1824, Madison endured with good grace the disapproval of Lafayette, then on a triumphal tour of the United States, who visited Montpelier and told off the retired president, expressing disgust that both Jefferson and Madison, such champions of liberty, should still own slaves and support such a vile institution. In 1835, Harriet Martineau, an outspoken abolitionist and an old friend of Madison's, visited him for the last time, afterwards reporting that her host "talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging, without limitations or hesitation, all the evils with which it has ever been charged."

Like Madison himself, his biographers treat slavery as a kind of dirge, faintly heard off-stage and nearly drowned out by the stirring music of the freedom fighters making an American Revolution and the framers of the Constitution going about the glorious work of creating a democratic republic. Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, however, wants us to listen to that more troubled theme, and the result is a revelation. In A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons, we're asked to consider Madison as a "garden-variety slaveholder": "He followed the basic patterns and norms for slaves' living conditions and treatment that had long been established on Virginia plantations and like most owners respected the customary "rights" -- such as Sundays off -- that enslaved people had come to consider their due." If it is not oxymoronic to say so, Madison was a humane slaveholder. He was also not very enterprising, in that his human holdings constituted -- as they did for Jefferson -- a losing economic proposition. As soon as her husband died, Dolley Madison, whose Quaker father had freed his slaves, sold off batches of her slaves in order to pay off debts.

Ms. Dowling crafts a narrative in which African Americans are virtually never out of sight. And that makes a great deal of sense: it is unlikely that Madison ever spent a day without relying on the services of a slave. He took at least one of them with him when he traveled. And Paul Jennings was the last one out the door, clutching some of Dolley Madison's treasures, as the British advanced during the War of 1812 and set fire to the White House.

Harriet Martineau observed with some surprise how Madison could discourse on the evils of slavery, even as slaves served him at table. It is that Madison we see in Ms. Dowling's narrative. Here is a sample sentence: "The Virginia Resolutions [1799] was yet another appeal against tyranny that Madison drafted at the place where he lived with scores of slaves." When Lafayette comes to Montpelier, Jennings is there beside Madison, listening, although we do not know what the slave thought. And this silence forces Ms. Dowling, all too often, to resort to what "must have been" going through Jennings's mind. It is no wonder, then, that most historians and biographers are much more comfortable dealing with Madison's well-documented mind. Thus Kevin R. C. Gutzman writes a stirring narrative, showing his subject's dexterity as politician and statesman, while Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg portray how well the tag-team of Madison and Jefferson served their country.

The concluding pages of Richard Brookhiser's concise biography seem to come closest to revealing why the mild-mannered Madison both deplored slavery and supported it; started the War of 1812, even as he was trying to negotiate peace with the British; and fought stoutly for maintaining the Union, even as he remained very much a son of the South. Mr. Brookhiser sees Madison as the epitome of the legislative mind. Madison was the man of principles who made deals, making sure the words "slave" and "slavery" did not appear in the Constitution, but also paying off his Southern vote-counting brethren with the three-fifths compromise. Slaves were partial "persons" for purposes of exerting political power. This political accommodation jibed with Madison's statement that slaves were part of his family, but only a "degraded" part.

The legislative mind, Mr. Brookhiser suggests, has trouble with the idea of exerting executive power. Since Madison believed that he could secure no agreement among slaveholders to abolish slavery -- let alone arrange some kind of compact with the North -- then nothing could be done short of shipping African Americans off to Liberia. But that strategy would work only if African Americans themselves consented, Madison argued, and most did not. And the cost of reimbursing slaveholders proved a problem too large for Madison's limited capacity as an economist.

But there is an even more important factor to consider in exploring why Madison, a mover and shaker of public opinion when it came to engineering such triumphs as the "Federalist Papers" to support the Constitution, never mounted a credible campaign to abolish or even attenuate the institution of slavery. From 1780 to 1784, William Gardner, Madison's slave, resided in Philadelphia with his master, who attended meetings there of the Continental Congress. Upon Madison's return to Virginia, Madison left Gardner behind, writing that his factotum's mind had been "tainted" with ideas -- the "contagion of liberty," as Elizabeth Dowling Taylor puts it. This episode is reminiscent of that scene in Frederick Douglass's autobiography when his white mistress is advised not to teach him to read, because doing so will only give him "notions" that do not befit a slave.

Madison's idea of the American polity had no place for educated black men and women, let alone the masses of freed slaves that he believed had trouble governing themselves. No matter which biography you read, all of them eventually disclose this fundamental fact: Madison did not believe that white and black Americans could live side by side on terms of equality and amity. His failure to imagine a world more capacious and tolerant than his own helps explain a good deal of subsequent history, and America's resistance to the very practice of equality that Madison otherwise did so much to foster.
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LibraryThing member cmbohn
I got this free in exchange for a review from Library Thing's Early Reviewer program.

I think you can tell a lot about a person based on how they treat others when they think no one is watching. Based on that assumption, I have to respect James Madison for trying to do a good job. Ultimately, he fell short. But he had those giant blind spots typical of men from his background.

Paul Jennings was the slave of James and Dolley Madison. The father of the Constitution talked a lot about liberty, but in the end, he didn't free his slaves. Dolley was worse. She promised, but she wound up selling many of her slaves to pay off debts.

I really liked this look at what the White House was like back in the Madison era and how Washington has grown.
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LibraryThing member bezoar44
I'm grateful to have received a free copy of this book, and am a little embarrassed that it took me nearly four years to finish it.

The book does two things, both well. First, it tells the story of Paul Jennings, born an enslaved person on James Madison's Virginia plantation. He served Madison as a personal attendant, then Madison's widow Dolley, and then bought his freedom with the help of Daniel Webster. I found the first few chapters solid but slow (and got stuck there), but from Madison's time in the White House on, the story picks up. Along the way, the story provides a particularly poignant (or, perhaps, searing) view of the gap between Madison's high ideals of liberty, and the reality of slavery, demeaning at best and often casually brutal. Many of the sources that survive from the period focus on what James and Dolley and their white friends and visitors said and did - not so different from what a biography of them might include. But, this book uses the documented presence of Jennings to ask what those conversations - about justice, about social order, about the capacities of black people - sounded like from the perspective of a highly competent enslaved person who had to stand in the room silently and attentively. Evidence suggests Jennings long dreamed of freedom, and after he won it for himself, put himself on the line to help other enslaved people buy their freedom or attempt to escape.

The second goal of the book is to make Jennings' history come alive by sketching his line down to the present day, to a gathering of a couple dozen of his descendants at the White House in 2009 to honor his memory. While this aspect of the book moved me less, it's not a lot of pages, and I can see how it could be really powerful for readers who often find themselves and their families excluded or simply left out of histories of the early 1800s; it's celebration of a continuity between Jennings' experiences and our increasingly diverse American identity today.
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LibraryThing member book58lover
This book certainly has changed my perception of Dolley Madison, the slave owner. Although many people had slaves at the beginning of our country, including several presidents, it is reprehensible that Dolley not only kept slaves well beyond her husband's death when he desired they be freed, but she sold them over a period of time when she needed money.
Elizabeth Taylor does an admirable job of describing the lives of slaves in the first half of the 19th century, teasing out the information from the very little left by those who lived then. The bulk of the book is not about Jennings, perhaps because everything that is known has been told; it just isn't enough to have the book stand on him alone. I think the title is misleading because very little is spent in the White House but that doesn't negate the depth of information on slaves and freedmen. Looking at it in the larger context it is an amazing book.
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LibraryThing member Lyndatrue
Fascinating portrait of Paul Jennings, and a less than flattering picture of the Madisons (and yet, I was not surprised). With the recent images of slavery fresh in the minds of folks (from 12 Years a Slave), this is a reasoned and informed description, starting from the memoir of Jennings, and extended with Dowling's research and interviews of the descendants.

Remarkable and worthy work.
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LibraryThing member lamour
This is a biography of Jennings but we also learn much about the life and times of President James Madison and his famous and popular wife Dolly. Jennings was born a slave on the Madison plantation, Montpelier, in 1799. His role in the Madison family developed over time to be the coachman, doorman and main servant to Madison. His access to Madison meant he heard many discussions about politics and economics that led him to want freedom for himself and his loved ones.

His desire for freedom led him to risk his future safety by assisting other slaves' escape to freedom in the North. Because he was literate and wrote a brief pamphlet about his years in the White House with the Madisons, we have the first description of what life was like in the White House when the nation was young as well as descriptions of Washington as it was being designed and built. Apparently the well to do fled the city in summer to get away from the heat and bugs.

Jennings was there the day the British burnt the White House during the War of 1812 and the family legend is that he helped rescue the huge George Washington painting that still hangs in the White House today from being destroyed in the fire.

This volume gives us more than biographical information on these individuals. So much of the book is about how these people lived. What it was like to be a slave in 19th Century Washington and how that was different from being a slave in the South.

Famous men such as General Lafayette traveled to Washington from Europe and were openly critical of the US. a country that purported to be based on democracy and freedom for the individual but that also condoned the use of slaves. It seems men such as Washington, Jefferson and Madison recognized their hypocrisy but could not see how they could change things without bloodshed.
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LibraryThing member Iambookish
Thank you Goodreads for the copy of this wonderful book. Paul Jennings story is something that appealed to the history lover in me and the author's ability to parlay her research into an enjoyable telling of his life and the lives of his ancestors made it a pleasure to read. Paul Jennings was born into slavery on the plantation of President James Madison. When his was young, he moved with the Madison's to the Executive Mansion and even played a major role in saving the famous painting of George Washington when the British attacked in 1812. His duties as a "body servant" to President Madison made him closer to the man than anyone other than his wife Dolley. After the death of the President, Mr. Jennings remained a slave serving Dolley Madison until, with the help of Daniel Webster, he was able to buy his freedom.
It was great to learn about the past from a different point of view.
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LibraryThing member Illiniguy71
The book is thoroughly researched, with full scholarly apparatus, but is written in a way that appeals to the general reader. Due to the nature of the surviving source material, it is as much about James and Dolley Madison as it is about their slave, Paul Jennings. Historians will find the details of interest, but will discover little they do not already know about slavery as practiced in Virginia in the early 19th century. General readers can learn much about the kinds of lives lived by house slaves and the wealthier of their owners in the early national period. While this book very much reflects the judgements of our present time, its accuracy is not to be challenged. Recommended to both general and specialist readers.… (more)
LibraryThing member bjmitch
This book will unfortunately have limited appeal because of its scholarly approach and necessary supposition of much of Paul Jennings' life. I received it from Amazon Vine.

He was born at Montpelier, James and Dolley Madison's home in Virginia. His mother was Dolley's maid and Paul was mullato so he was raised in the house as Dolley's son's "boy." As Payne Todd's constant companion, Paul was present during his sessions with his tutor. Later, as Madison's valet and doorman, he was present during political discussions and long talks about running the agricultural affairs of Montpelier. No surprise, then that he learned to read and write, and that he was more sophisticated and gentlemanly than many slaves.

During the War of 1812, Paul was instrumental in saving the large portrait of George Washington as the British approached, intent on burning the White House. Master and Mistress both trusted Paul implicitly.

However, he remained a slave until Dolley Madison was in deep financial trouble living as a widow in Washington. He had met Daniel Webster, who was known to purchase the freedom of slaves and let them work off the purchase price in his household, perhaps one of the reasons Webster was always broke. By the time Webster bought his freedom, Paul was a middle-aged married man with children.

Because of Paul's position in life, author Elizabeth Dowling Taylor was forced to make too many assumptions about who he met, where he was at any specific time, what he may have overheard, and who his slave associates were. She does use any documentation she has found in her career as a curator and researcher, and there is more than usual for a slave, but still one tires of "he might have" and "probably."

I was quite interested in learning more about Dolley Madison and about President Madison's views on slavery, as well as the life of a slave in a president's house. As I don't mind scholarly works, I did enjoy this book and I believe the author knows as much as one can know about her subject. One just needs to realize what type of book this represents.
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LibraryThing member caalynch
A great lover of early American history, I was disappointed by this book. The writing was overwrought with extraneous detail especially about peripheral characters that I couldn't get past the second chapter.

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