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America’s founding slave

March 9, 2012, 6:14 PM UTC

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. In this installment, editor at large David Whitford reviews A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons, by Elizabeth Browning Taylor.

Paul Jennings was an American slave who belonged to James Madison Jr., fourth president of the United States. In the author’s note to A Slave in the White House, Elizabeth Browning Taylor writes about meeting her subject’s great-granddaughter, Sylvia Jennings Alexander. It was a startling occasion for Taylor: to come face to face with a vital, 93-year-old woman whose “stories went right back to Paul Jennings’s time.”

Reading Taylor’s book, I was repeatedly struck by how few leaps are required to connect the present with slave days, and even with the era of the founders. Among the illustrations that complement the text is an 1848 daguerreotype of Dolley Madison, born nine years before the Declaration of Independence. I stared at her visage for several long minutes. We are indeed a young country.

That’s half the power of Taylor’s narrative. She also reminds us how profoundly strange and foreign-feeling America was during the first half of the 19th century. At the beginning of the Madison administration in 1810, “Washington City” was a swampy, forest-ringed backwater with a population of 8,208. Both the White House (or “Great House,” as some still referred to it) and the Capitol were still under construction. President’s Square, later Lafayette Square, was “a half abandoned apple orchard with a few abandoned gravestones poking up in one corner.” And yes, “Slave pens were located throughout the city, including in the shadow of the White House and Capitol, with auctions of enslaved men, women, and children a regular occurrence.”

Some of the founders really did struggle with the contradiction between their Enlightenment passion for liberty, and the liberty they denied to others. In his early 30s, Madison briefly considered renouncing his inheritance and taking up Thomas Jefferson’s offer of “a little farm” near Monticello that he could manage mostly on his own, part of a Jeffersonian scheme to entice some of his Southern friends to chuck it all and establish a “society to our taste.”

“I feel the attractions of the particular situation you point out to me;” Madison wrote back a month later, “I cannot altogether renounce the prospect; still less can I as yet embrace it.” The will that would assign to Madison the grand, porticoed mansion at Montpelier, a vast estate, and the slaves to work it was dated September 17, 1787. “By striking coincidence,” Taylor notes, Madison was not at home that day. He was in Philadelphia affixing his signature to “the world’s greatest achievement in self-sovereignty, or the right of people to govern themselves, the United States Constitution.”

The title of the book is slightly misleading. Only one chapter concerns Jennings’s teenage years, when he served President Madison as footman, and lived with the other family slaves in the cellar of the White House. Madison was not the first president who brought slaves to the executive mansion, or the last. According to the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University, 12 U.S. presidents at one time owned slaves, eight while they were in office: “Put another way, for 50 of the first 60 years of the new republic, the president was a slaveholder.”

When the British burned Washington in 1814, Jennings held the ladder while another slave removed Gilbert Stuart’s life-size portrait of George Washington from its frame. He helped load the canvas into a cart for safe transport to a barn in Maryland for the duration of the war. Today that portrait hangs again in the East Room of the White House.

After Madison’s presidency, Jennings returned with his master to Montpelier, where he was promoted to personal manservant. In this role Jennings tended to the retired president’s wardrobe (Madison stuck with breeches and silk stockings his whole life, long after most of his peers had switched to pants), shaved his whiskers, entertained him with fiddle tunes, and stood in constant if generally unnoticed attendance while Madison entertained a constant stream of prominent visitors. Jennings’s “exposure to the visual and auditory ‘feast’ at Montpelier was a daily education,” Taylor writes. “The light, the knowledge was shared with him, if only inadvertently.”

What emerges is a portrait of a remarkably willful, ambitious, opportunistic, and in his own way well-connected American whose life came to embody what the Civil War historian Gabor Boritt has called the “right to rise.” You could also call it the American dream. Born into slavery in the last year of the 18th century, Jennings died a free man in his own home a decade after the Civil War. “Not only did he secure his own freedom” — with a loan from Daniel Webster — “and his family’s future, but as an intrepid antislavery activist, he forged passes and free papers, aided runaway slaves, helped organize a major slave escape attempt, and raised funds for slaves in peril.”

Near the end of his life Jennings published a small book, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, which counts as the first White House memoir, and is republished in its entirety as an appendix to Taylor’s book. In the course of her research, Taylor also relied on oral history, and so became acquainted with many of Jennings’s descendants. One young man said that reading about his slave ancestor was “a life-changing experience — I did not know black people did things like that then.” At times, if I might complain gently, Taylor’s narrative, with its many names, dates and places, reads a little too much like a family history. Then again, this is a family whose history touches us all.

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