'A Slave in the White House': attending a president
Elizabeth Dowling Taylor's history "A Slave in the White House" tells the story of Paul Jennings, President James Madison's body servant, who attended Madison in the White House, then moved home with Madison to Montpelier where he worked until Madison's death.
Special to The Seattle Times
'A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons'
by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
Palgrave Macmillan, 304 pp., $28
"A Slave in the White House" is the story of Paul Jennings, born into slavery at Montpelier, who later accompanied his master, James Madison, to the White House when Madison became president. After his presidency, Madison returned to Montpelier, where Jennings was his body servant until Madison's death.
Jennings is well known to history for his brief "memoir" of life in the Madison White House. He could read and write — relatively rare for a slave — although his 2,640-word "memoir" was actually written by John Brooks Russell, a friend who recorded Jennings' oral reminiscences "in almost his own language."
The memoir includes Jennings' account of the British seizure of the White House during the War of 1812 and the rescue of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington, which hung in the executive mansion. Contrary to a popular myth that Dolley Madison cut the famous portrait from its frame and spirited it out of the White House, Jennings said the White House doorkeeper and gardener actually removed the portrait and carried it away in a wagon.
With financial help from the famous orator Daniel Webster, who assisted many slaves in their bids for freedom, Jennings purchased his release from Dolley Madison after her husband's death. The former slave lived in Washington, D.C., surviving two of three wives, until his own death in 1874.
Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, former director of education at Montpelier, researched Jennings' life for this book. Even a literate slave like Jennings left a sparse paper trail, so Taylor was forced to rely on informed conjecture to fill in many details. However, she describes some of the subtle and not-so-subtle methods that white slaveholders, even including the libertarian Madison, used to dehumanize their "property."
In Jennings' case they did not succeed, and now his struggle for a life of freedom speaks eloquently across the years.