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

3.55  ·  Rating details ·  596 ratings  ·  127 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
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published January 3rd 2012 by St. Martin's Press
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3.55  · 
Rating details
 ·  596 ratings  ·  127 reviews


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Sharon
Oct 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
...more
Carol
Oct 25, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2011
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
Elizabeth
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
Carl Rollyson
Oct 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Maggie
Jan 08, 2016 rated it liked it
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
...more
Grady McCallie
Feb 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: black-america
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 ti
...more
Wayne
Dec 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Judy
Mar 02, 2019 rated it liked it
The first two-thirds of the book is more the story of the Madisons than it is of the slave, Paul Jennings. Much about Jennings had to be inferred, but the inferences made by Taylor are reasonable.

Some of the early history of the U.S. ... I am embarrassed to admit that I should have known but didn't. E.g.,
- The discussion of emancipation was heavily weighted with the need to start colonies specifically for free blacks. It seemed highly unlikely to gentlemen from the early 1800s that blacks and wh
...more
Barbara Mitchell
Jan 01, 2012 rated it liked it
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
...more
Emily
Aug 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is exactly what a minor work of popular history should be. Paul Jennings is the first White House memoirist. He published A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison later in life, a slim volume of memories mostly connected with the British invasion of Washington D.C. during the War of 1812. This volume is so slim, in fact, that it is reprinted as an appendix. The main book is a biography of Paul Jennings, born a slave on James Madison's Montpelier estate in a bloodcurdling testament to ...more
Lois
Well written, interesting, well paced and easy reading. This focuses as much on the times as the subject.
Mimi
Mar 18, 2014 rated it liked it
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 like, and thus 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 ab
...more
Jimmy
Jan 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, race
More information about the Madisons than about the slave Paul Jennings. That's to be expected because of who they all were. Always difficult to look at a different time period and make judgments. I find myself asking, "What kind of man would I have been back then? Would I have had the same prejudices if that was the prevailing view?"
NyiNya
Aug 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Louise
This book begins with an introduction by Annette Gordon-Reed, who documented the Hemings Family of Monticello in The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. As author Elizabeth Dowling Taylor unfolds the Jennings-Madison story you see Presidents Jefferson and Madison had a lot more in common than statecraft. Both thought, wrote and spoke extensively and loftily on the rights of man... and both... despite their high rhetoric maintained enslaved populations.

The first half of the book (Chapter
...more
Nate
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
...more
Laura
Jan 28, 2012 rated it liked it
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
...more
A. Lieberson
Jun 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
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.
Nathan Albright
Jul 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: challenge2017
There has been a growing number of books in recent years that have demonstrated the role of slavery in the early American Republic, much of which has decreased the esteem in which our nation's founding fathers--especially the southern ones--have been held [1].  Likewise there is a contemporary trend, which this Berkley-trained author would be well aware of, to look at history from the point of view of ordinary people who were not the elites that usually make it into the historical record.  Yet f ...more
Ai Miller
Apr 22, 2017 rated it it was ok
I will admit that I wanted to read this book almost exclusively because of a borderline throwaway line in a National Geographic documentary from the early 90s. And this book wasn't as terrible as the review might make it seem, but it wasn't super great either, to be honest. There were parts where Taylor's writing about enslaved people struck me as like... gross and weird? Which made this book a little difficult, given that it's about an enslaved man. She at one point said that being polite and t ...more
John Findlay
Mar 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book probably deserves 5 stars for content, and 3 stars for readability. I found the true story of Paul Jennings to be very compelling, as it provides insight into the life of a slave in the first half of the 19th century. And Jennings, as a house slave and private manservant to James Madison, would be one of the best-treated slaves. But, he was clearly a slave, and a huge chasm separated those that were enslaved from those who were free. I have always hated the hypocrisy of some of out bes ...more
Ashley Teagle
This book was interesting. It tells the sorry of Paul Jennings, a slave who served as the personal servant of James Madison. Most notable about Jennings is he wrote what is known as the first White House memoir. Sadly not many of the book were published and the story of Jennings slipped through the cracks.

I enjoyed learning about a little known person in history and fans of nonfiction will probably enjoy this one too.
Michelle
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
Prima Seadiva
Audiobook-reader was decent.
The subject was compelling. The overall rationalization of and contradiction between ideals and the realities of slavery are still in evidence in the U.S. today. As today there was a lot of self serving hypocritical as well as some genuine behavior.
Some of the repeated minutiae, especially the interminable detail about the Madison's daily lives that did not relate to the main character, was detracting from the main story. On the other hand some of the details of slav
...more
Shawn Thrasher
Feb 05, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Tracy
Dec 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: first-reads, reread
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
Andrea
American Revolutionary and early history is not my favorite time period, but I was very glad I picked up this audiobook. This was a very interesting bio of a very interesting man who was sort of a “bystander” to major history. Born into slavery on James Madison’s estate, Paul Jennings was an educated and skilled bodyservant who served Madison for much of his life. When Madison’s journey took him to the White House, Jennings went along. I really appreciated that there were strong sources for this ...more
Jackie Jacobs
Dec 10, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Joanna
Dec 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Valerie
Dec 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
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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