Louise's Reviews > A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons

A Slave in the White House by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
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bookshelves: african-americans, presidents-and-spouses, us-history, us-policy, slavery, biography

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 (Chapters 1 - 4, divided from the second half by pictures) covers the nature of slavery in the households of James Madison in his Montpelier plantation, the White House and the temporary presidential quarters following the burning of the Capitol by the British in 1814. The second half covers the widowhood of Dolley Madison, the Pearl incident which included a 15 year old slave from her household, the death of Dolley Madison's son (the President's step-son), Daniel Webster and finally, two chapters exclusively on Paul Jennings and his progeny. The Appendix is an excerpt from a book Jennings wrote on his time with President Madison.

While there are very few pages on the White House (contrary to what you expect from the title), the book gives the perspective of Paul Jennings as representative of those who served in formal environments, there and elsewhere, where rarified talk of rights and liberty filled the air. Author Taylor poses ideas on how such conversations were most likely understood by the servers who had no liberty.

James Madison's will had rhetoric about his slaves consenting to their next master and some talk of freedom. Dolley Madison ignored this and postured that she would only sell slaves to friends and family (which she similarly did not honor). Dolley's son who eventually inherited what had not been sold of the Madison slaves, promised freedom plus $200 each upon his death... but his slaves had been already pledged as collateral on his debts. With the help of Daniel Webster, Paul Jennings bought his freedom. In short, the Madison family, despite its rhetoric did not free one slave.

While the drudge of life was taken care of, slave holders in remote locations with a large proportion of enslaved people had deep fears of revolt. The Madisons lived with an uneasy defensive posture towards notables such as Harriet Martineau, Edward Coles, Daniel Webster and General Lafayette who held higher moral ground.

I had a review copy and I hope the final will have an index. There is a good genealogy chart of the Jennings family.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
November 29, 2011 – Finished Reading
September 8, 2012 – Shelved
September 8, 2012 – Shelved as: african-americans
September 8, 2012 – Shelved as: presidents-and-spouses
September 8, 2012 – Shelved as: us-history
September 8, 2012 – Shelved as: us-policy
September 8, 2012 – Shelved as: slavery
September 9, 2012 – Shelved as: biography

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