On Sunday, Brett and I attended a book signing with Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, author of “A Slave in the White House”.
The event was sponsored by the James Madison Museum
in Orange, Virginia.
Elizabeth Dowling Taylor received her PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. She has worked over 22 years in museum education and historical research. She was the 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, Ms. Taylor is now an independent scholar and lecturer. She resides in Barboursville, Virginia.
Her book, “A Slave in the White House” is about a slave from Montpelier named Paul Jennings. Jennings served as a personal servant to President James Madison during and after his White House years. After buying his freedom in 1845, Jennings would publish the first White House memoir “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison” in which he described as “a singular document in the history of slavery and the early American republic.”
Jennings was born into slavery at Montpelier in 1799. His mother, who was African-Native American, told Jennings that his father was Benjamin Jennings, an English trader. As a child Jennings would be a companion to Dolley Madison’s son Payne Todd. At age 10, Jennings would accompany James Madison and his family to the White House as a “body servant”. In his book, Jennings would describe Washington on his arrival as a “dreary place” with unpaved streets. The White House was still under construction and the East Room was yet to be finished.
During the War of 1812, as Dolley rushed from the White House as British troops approached, it was a 15 year old Jennings along with two other men through the direction of Dolley Madison that reportedly helped save the noted Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. It would later become the only surviving item of the White House before the war.
Jennings would return to Montpelier at age 18 and continue to serve James Madison as his valet for the rest of the president’s life. Jennings was with James Madison when he died in 1836. He would describe President Madison’s last moments in his book,
“I was always with Mr. Madison till he died, and shaved him every other day for sixteen years. For six months before his death, he was unable to walk, and spent most of his time reclined on a couch; but his mind was bright, and with his numerous visitors he talked with as much animation and strength of voice as I ever heard him in his best days. I was present when he died. That morning Sukey brought him his breakfast, as usual. He could not swallow. His niece, Mrs. Willis, said, “What is the matter, Uncle Jeames?” “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear. His head instantly dropped, and he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out.”
Paul Jennings, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison (1865)
Jennings would marry a slave held on another plantation named Fanny and they would have five children. Dolley would take Jennings to Washington for the winter seasons. He was forced to leave his family behind only being permitted to visit them occasionally. Jennings would be the only slave in Dolley Madison’s will ever named to be freed. But due to her financial struggles, in 1844 Dolley had to sell Montpelier and all its property which included its slaves. It was that same year that Jennings’ wife Fanny would die. Dolley would hire out Jennings to President James Polk in Washington to help her survive financially.
Jennings would ask to purchase his freedom from Dolley, but she sold him to an insurance agent for $200. Quickly Senator Daniel Webster intervened and purchased him from the new owner for $120. Senator Webster would then give Jennings his freedom allowing him to work off his debt of his purchase.
It was during the time that Jennings was working for Senator Webster that Jennings would stay in contact with Dolley Madison, who still lived in the area despite her serious financial difficulties. Jennings would describe in his memoir that Senator Webster would instruct him “whenever I saw anything in the house I thought she was in need of, to take it to her.” “I often did this,” wrote Jennings, “and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket.”
In 1848, Jennings would help plan a mass escape of 77 slaves from Washington. It was the largest slave escape attempted in American history. Through the efforts and funding of white abolitionists William L. Chaplin and Gerrit Smith, the free black community of Washington would help the slaves escape on a 225 mile journey to freedom in the North on the schooner “Pearl”. However due to poor winds the slaves were captured and returned to Washington. Most were resold to traders in the Deep South. The two white captains, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres were convicted on multiple counts of aiding a slave escape and illegally transporting slaves. They served four years in jail before being pardoned by President Millard Fillmore.
Jennings would remarry again to Desdemona Brooks, a free mulatto whose mother was white. She was from Alexandria, Virginia. In the 1850s, Jennings would return to Virginia and reunite with his family. He had three sons who would join the Union cause during the Civil War. John, Franklin, William and daughter Mary would later join him in Washington.
After the war Jennings would work for the newly established Pension Bureau in the Department of Interior. He would handle claims of veterans and soldiers’ families. It was there that he met John Brooks Russell. Russell would help Jennings to gain publication for his memoir as a book in 1865.
As a free man, Jennings purchased a lot and built a home. It was here that his son John would live with him. His daughter Mary would live next door with her two children and his sons Franklin and William would live in the area. After Desdemona passed away, Jennings would remarry a third time to Amelia Dorsey. He would die in 1874 at the age of 75 in Washington.
At the book signing, we had an opportunity to hear how Elizabeth Dowling Taylor completed her research for her book. As she was talking, I found myself smiling in understanding as I too had experienced some of her joys in research. The most enjoyable part was as she described find a member of the Jennings family that was still alive and able to talk with her about her knowledge of the oral history of Jennings and his family. It is my hope that one day I might find someone with the same family history that will be able to give me more insight on the families of Belle Grove.
The most exciting part of our visit had to be a lead that Ms. Taylor gave me on a slave that could possibly have come from Belle Grove! In her research, she had uncovered a slave by the name of Billey, who was said to have come from James Madison’s grandmother. Billey would later gain his freedom from James Madison and would take the name of William Gardner. I am in the middle of this research so more to come on this!
We would like to thank the James Madison Museum for sponsoring this wonderful event!
It has provided us with leads on our research and has given us a chance to meet
the author of one a most wonderful book on slavery at Montpelier.
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