HomeLatest ThreadsGreatest ThreadsForums & GroupsMy SubscriptionsMy Posts
DU Home » Latest Threads » Forums & Groups » Main » General Discussion (Forum) » “A Slave in the White Hou...

Sun Apr 15, 2012, 08:34 AM

“A Slave in the White House”: James Madison and his slaves


When James Madison died, he still owned about 100 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 slavery seriously. But most, including not only Mr. Brookhiser and Mr. Broadwater, but also Kevin R. C. Gutzman, Andrew Burstein, and Nancy Isenberg, treat the issue of slavery as a thing apart, in separate chapters, instead dealing with the place of the “peculiar institution” in Madison’s life in the years after he left the presidency.

And yet there never was a time when James Madison (1751 – 1836), a third-generation slave owner, did not believe slavery was evil — or a time when he did not recognize the capabilities of African-Americans. In 1791, Madison wrote admiringly about the “industry & good management” of a free African-American landowner who could read, keep accounts and supervise six white hired men on a 2,500-acre farm. In April 1800, Madison dined with Christopher McPherson, a confident and free African-American, who came as a guest to Madison’s plantation home, Montpelier, to deliver books and letters that Madison and Jefferson sent to each other. During Madison’s terms as president, he often heard out his private secretary, Edward Coles, who objected to slavery as a violation of the natural rights doctrine that Jefferson and Madison espoused. In 1816, Jesse Torrey, a zealous abolitionist, visited Montpelier and treated Madison to a tirade against slavery, afterward sending a letter of apology — only to receive, in reply, a letter from Madison saying no apology was necessary. In 1824, Madison endured with good grace the disapproval of Lafayette, then on a triumphal tour of the United States, who visited Montpelier and told off the retired president, expressing disgust that both Jefferson and Madison, such champions of liberty, should still own slaves and support such a vile institution. In 1835, Harriet Martineau, an outspoken abolitionist and an old friend of Madison’s, visited him for the last time, afterward reporting that her host “talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging, without limitations or hesitation, all the evils with which it has ever been charged.”

Like Madison himself, his biographers treat slavery as a kind of dirge, faintly heard offstage and nearly drowned out by the stirring music of the freedom fighters making an American Revolution and the framers of the Constitution going about the glorious work of creating a democratic republic. Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, however, wants us to listen to that more troubled theme, and the result is a revelation. In “A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons,” we’re asked to consider Madison as a “garden-variety slaveholder”: “He followed the basic patterns and norms for slaves’ living conditions and treatment that had long been established on Virginia plantations and like most owners respected the customary “rights” — such as Sundays off — that enslaved people had come to consider their due.” If it is not oxymoronic to say so, Madison was a humane slaveholder. He was also not very enterprising, in that his human holdings constituted — as they did for Jefferson — a losing economic proposition. As soon as her husband died, Dolley Madison, whose Quaker father had freed his slaves, sold off batches of her slaves in order to pay off debts.

2 replies, 66818 views

Reply to this thread

Back to top Alert abuse

Always highlight: 10 newest replies | Replies posted after I mark a forum
Replies to this discussion thread
Arrow 2 replies Author Time Post
Reply “A Slave in the White House”: James Madison and his slaves (Original post)
xchrom Apr 2012 OP
UTUSN Apr 2012 #1
roguevalley Apr 2012 #2

Response to xchrom (Original post)

Sun Apr 15, 2012, 10:45 AM

1. R#5 & K for, MADISON and LBJ

In Robert A. CARO’s bio of LBJ, he spends exhaustive chapters in Vol. 2 on the (one of several) stolen election, the Box 13 stolen Senate run, that makes 2000’s Shrub v. GORE look puny. He paints Rethug/Conservative Coke STEVENSON as a noble, high-minded, honest, epitome of integrity and LBJ as the unscrupulous thief. No question. But Coke was a garden variety Conservative. If justice had been done and proper investigation and legal action been honored and Coke the Honest justly installed as Senator, his sincere Conservatism WOULD NEVER HAVE RESULTED in the landmarks of Civil and Voting Rights legislation that the perpetrator LBJ accomplished.

Let this sink in: SOME CONVICTIONS/PHILOSOPHIES ARE ULTIMATELY WRONG. Wingnuttiness is one of these. Tell that to TeaBaggers.

In this book review, the author’s description of MADISON’s “the legislative mind” – compromising, making deals – applies perfectly to CARO’s depiction of LBJ.

*************QUOTE******** (from the same O.P. link) [FONT style="BACKGROUND-COLOR: yellow"] [/FONT]

.... ...Mr. Brookhiser sees [FONT style="BACKGROUND-COLOR: yellow"]Madison as the epitome of the legislative mind[/FONT]. Madison was the [FONT style="BACKGROUND-COLOR: yellow"]man of principles who made deals[/FONT], making sure the words “slave” and “slavery” did not appear in the Constitution, but also paying off his Southern vote-counting brethren with the three-fifths compromise. Slaves were partial “persons” for purposes of exerting political power. This [FONT style="BACKGROUND-COLOR: yellow"]political accommodation[/FONT] jibed with Madison’s statement that slaves were part of his family, but only a “degraded” part. ....

Madison’s idea of the American polity had no place for educated black men and women, let alone the masses of freed slaves that he believed had trouble governing themselves. No matter which biography you read, all of them eventually disclose this fundamental fact: Madison did not believe that white and black Americans could live side by side on terms of equality and amity. [FONT style="BACKGROUND-COLOR: yellow"]His failure to imagine a world more capacious and tolerant than his own helps explain a good deal of subsequent history, and America’s resistance to the very practice of equality[/FONT] that Madison otherwise did so much to foster. ....


Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink

Response to xchrom (Original post)

Sun Apr 15, 2012, 12:07 PM

2. tragic complexity we are still living with.

this said by a gal whose lovely mama always thought her family fought for the north. they were an anomaly in their little town, totally and completely firm about the need for equal treatment of everyone. However, they came from a slave owning family of long standing in Carolina (before it divided) Virginia and Missouri. One of my g.g.ma was a cousin of Jefferson Davis. To say my mother was wounded to know this at long last understates things but I told her that makes her family's beliefs and relentless teaching of them all the more a miracle.

I love you, Mama, Grandpa and Grandma and Great Grandma and Grandpa. They saw the stink of it and killed it in the family as best they could because of it. Sometimes one person CAN change the world.

Reply to this post

Back to top Alert abuse Link here Permalink

Reply to this thread