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

3.50  ·  Rating Details  ·  441 Ratings  ·  102 Reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 336 pages
Published February 19th 2013 by St. Martin's Griffin (first published January 3rd 2012)
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(showing 1-30 of 2,462)
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Nov 20, 2011 Sharon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Long-time readers of my reviews know that I admire a well-researched book. "A Slave in the White House" is just such a book.

Elizabeth Dowling Taylor's book about Paul Jennings, a man born into slavery on the James and Dolley Madison estate, brings the time period and historical personae to life through a fascinating perspective. Jennings is the author of the first White House memoir, as he wrote about living with the Madisons before, during and after the presidency.(Review based on uncorrected a
Nov 05, 2011 Carol rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011, non-fiction
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 th ...more
Everyone knows that slavery was evil, but Elizabeth Dowling Taylor's book A Slave in the White House explores the role of this evil in the heart of the American political system. This book tells of Paul Jennings, who worked for President Madison and who eventually purchased his freedom. It is an unfortunate contradiction that founding fathers who believed in political freedom could personally own other people, and it is equally disturbing to think of the White House itself, instead of a symbol o ...more
Barbara Mitchell
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
Jan 10, 2012 Wayne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Students of USistory
I teach US History and I am always looking for books that would interest my 8th graders. I used parts of this book while we were studying the War of 1812, to get the perspective of how someone else saw James Madison. My students were able to have another point of view coming from a slave in the White House. I enjoyed following the life of Paul Jennings with Madison, Daniel Webster and life after these two famous individuals of our past. I can only sum this up by using the author Elizabeth Dowlin ...more
Jan 12, 2016 Maggie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2016
Did I enjoy it? I did! The museum I work in is War of 1812 focused in a lot of ways, and we're trying to do more interpretation focusing on the lives of the slaves in the house, so this has been on my to-read list for awhile. It was an interesting look at the Madisons and at life in Virginia and DC during the early 1800s.
Would I read it again? I will probably use parts of it as a reference when doing historical research for work, but I'm probably not going to read the entire thing again.
Who Wo
Carl Rollyson
Oct 14, 2012 Carl Rollyson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 sl ...more
A. Lieberson
Jul 20, 2014 A. Lieberson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a fascinating book especially for any one who is interested in American history. We learn not only about the life of Paul Jennings, his life as a slave to President James Madison and his life as a freed slave living and working in Washington, DC., but the author provides us with a unique look at the daily life at Madison'ts Montpelier estate.
It is well written and well documented and the author includes photographs of the Jennings family.
Jan 28, 2012 Laura rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed the the history lessons learned from the book. I agree with others who state that in the beginning there was too much jumping around betweem various dates and names. I got confused, and had to keep checking back on the prior page. But I was still enthralled enough with the story/subject matter and persisted in reading it.
The latter part of the book flowed much more easily. In the end, I was struck by how differently I was taught history in grade school...this was an eye opener to chal
Mar 18, 2014 Mimi rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adult
This author did a really good job of setting the scene for Paul Jennings' life. Since there isn't any way to know many details about Paul Jennings, the author was required to do extensive research on the lives of his peers at the time, and she did a great job showing us what life then was life, and thusly what his life likely could have been like. Paul Jennings was born a slave and died a freeman; he worked for the Madisons during their time in the White House.

Slavery is very depressing to read
I waited for this book for months from the library and was so excited when my hold finally came in. It was a book I loved before I even opened the cover.... and then I did. Ugh, what an utter disappointment. This book is perhaps the best example of why a great historian does not make a great writer.

The book is simply just a mish-mash of tons of great research. The author will often mention a handful of names, jumping years in advance and then back again, then will throw in random locations acros
Aug 27, 2012 NyiNya rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
When our illustrious Founding Fathers spoke of 'freedom,' it appears that they were thinking of a rather small percentage of their world. The Freedom they sought so valiantly did not encompass women or people of color. Or the poor. Or the indentured. Or the enslaved. Or the unpropertied. In fact, if you were not a caucasian male, preferably of European origins, with a comfortable income, a good profession, and a nice hunk of property, you were a little bit out of luck in the Freedom Sweepstakes. ...more
Shawn Thrasher
The subject matter and occasionally brilliant bits of writing make up for an uneven narrative thread; occasionally Taylor takes you down a path to a dead end (the incident the Pearl could have been quite rivetting, for example, but unfortunately isn't). You'll want to read this to find out what a brilliant man Paul Jennings was, stuck in this world that's completely against him from birth, and how he struggles to make it out. One brick wall is the historically beloved Dolley Madison, grand dame ...more
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 ...more
Jan 14, 2012 Tracy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: first-reads
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 ...more
Jackie Jacobs
This book was just okay for me. I was confused through the first half of the book. I felt that there was too much jumping around with names and dates. The first half of the book was hard to keep up with because of that and also because half of the time it felt like a story being told and the other half it felt like the author was just going through a timeline. The second half of the book was much better. There wasn't as much jumping around with names and dates and I had no problem understanding ...more
Dec 31, 2011 Joanna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was fortunate to win a copy of the book, "A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons" as a First Reads. It was an enjoyable and informative book. Elizabeth D. Taylor approaches the subject of slavery and white supremacy in a scholarly voice. She expands the reader's view not only discussing Paul Jennings's treatment by James and Dolley Madison, but by comparing their actions with those of their peers. I particularly appreciate the inclusion of a map of Washington during Jenning ...more
Dec 22, 2011 Valerie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I won this book. It had some dry spots in the beginning but it contains a lot of background information on the people around PJ. We forget that many presidents owned or inherited slave money. This is a great book to learn about the experiences of slaves in the most famous house in our country. PJ went with the Madisons from their home to the white house where he experienced freed slaves. He was finally freed in the end by buying his freedom with the help of the famed Webster. It's a fascinating ...more
Apr 04, 2016 Aishuu rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found the concept of the book's theme of "The Right to Rise" very provocative (once I was able to get the very ironic Jeb Bush connotations out of my head). The author did a good job expanding on what little documentation remains for a slave - as is the case of many slave lives, there's not a lot that is documented about Jennings. Rather, Taylor decided to use Jennings as a prism through which his time period can be viewed, and carefully used inference based on other sources to explore what ev ...more
Feb 23, 2012 Courtney rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: first-reads
*I received a free copy of this book from Goodreads First Reads*

I have a hard time giving this book 2 stars because I feel like I'm giving the rating to the genre and not necessarily the book. I just found it a really tough read and didn't find that the story moved enough to keep me engrossed. To me it read like a "history book" and not like a narrative. Well researched and very thorough.
Laura LeAnn
This was a very interesting read, especially given that the text of the original source is so short. It is quite evident that the author went to great lengths to research Paul Jennings, his life, and his family using scores of census records, letters, family papers of various historical individuals, and data about the places Jennings lived, specifically Washington DC and it's development. It took me a chapter or so to really get into the narrative but once I did, it was a quick and informative r ...more
Aug 20, 2015 Nicole rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: z-2015-listened
I wanted to like this book but instead I found it dull and unorganized. There was interesting information but the presentation prevented me from enjoying it.
Janet Dahl
Jan 27, 2012 Janet Dahl rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Found this book to be very interesting but I love books about this time period. Learned some intesting facts about the Madison's and was impressed how Paul Jenning's was able to succeed and to take care of his family.
Edward Sullivan
A remarkable story that offers fascinating insight into slavery from the perspectives of Paul Jennings, the enslaved, and his enslavers, the Madisons.
I did not finish the book because it started to bore me. After 91 pages, I was tired of the mass jumble of names and the plodding style of the writing.
Pmalcpoet Pat Malcolm
Interesting history of the founding fathers, notably Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and their participation in slavery, told through historical records and the book written by Paul Jennings, the slave who served as James Madison's valet for more than 20 years until the death of the former legislator, Secretary of State and President of the United States. Madison promised Jennings his freedom following his death, but this was ignored by widow Dolley Madison, from whom Jennings ultimately pur ...more
Jun 23, 2014 Julia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library, read-2014
The last part of this book was better than the first, which was constraint by the lack of historical evidence to really get a sense of who Paul Jennings was while enslaved. There was a lot interesting conjecture of what he may have thought but it seemed as if the author was assuming more than the historical evidence allowed. The last part of the book, however, were very interesting and more than made up for the first 3 chapters or so. Pulling in the careers of Paul Jennings' sons during the Civi ...more
Margaret Sankey
Paul Jennings left an extraordinary autobiography in the 1850s--as the slave and personal valet of James Madison, he learned to read watching Todd Payne, served in the White House (helping save the papers and portrait of Washington from the British in the War of 1812) and acted as Madison's assistant and probably secretary in retirement. However, he was still a slave, married to a woman on the neighboring plantation, kept apart by the Madisons' residence in Washington D.C. and ultimately threate ...more
Bonnie Carruth
Money talks. Our founding fathers had many slave owners among their number. They faced a conundrum, how to live up to their ideals and not lose money. For the most part money won.They had pledge "their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor" to the cause of independence. But when it came down to taking a hit in their pocket books to free their slaves, their slaves remained enslaved.Their honor was lost when it came to breaking promises to free people in their wills or to keep families toge ...more
Apr 30, 2012 Nathan rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This was like reading a draft, and an amateur author's draft at that. Having found a hook for her story (unknown slave brought to life! Fresh insight into history to follow!), Taylor helplessly flails around trying to patch together a coherent story out of three: the specifics of Jennings's life (which are necessarily spotty), a personal sketch of Madison (which is to cursory and detached from her first subject to be effective, and an overview of the new abolitionist movement in general (too big ...more
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Elizabeth Dowling Taylor received her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. Over a 22-year career in museum education and historical research, she was Director of Interpretation at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Director of Education at James Madison’s Montpelier. Most recently a Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Taylor is now an independent scholar and lectur ...more
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