|Photo of Paul Jennings |
courtesy of Mary Alexander
In January 1817, with only two months remaining in his eight-year administration, James Madison received a letter from his nephew alerting him to a rumor that Jennings and two of the Madisons’ other home slaves in Washington intended to enlist illegally as cooks on sea vessels rather than return to the Madisons’ Virginia plantation.
We can imagine Jennings gnawing on the possibility of escape as he walked Washington’s city streets. Just ten in 1809 when he was selected to be part of the White House domestic staff, he had come of age in the nation’s new capital. Jennings would later chronicle many of the stirring events he witnessed during the War of 1812 in the first White House memoir, including his eyewitness account of the rescue from the torches of the invading British army of Gilbert Stuart’s iconic (and enormous) Lansdowne portrait of George Washington.
The decision Jennings wrestled with now centered not just on personal risk, his willingness to chance being arrested and punished. Strong family ties bound him to the plantation. Could he abandon the scene of his boyhood, the home of his mother, never to return?
It is not known if Madison confronted Jennings with his nephew’s letter but in the event he did go back to Virginia and was “promoted” to the role of personal manservant to the former president. Over Madison’s two-decade-long retirement Jennings served as barber and dressing man, traveling companion and—as Madison’s health declined—intimate caregiver.
Always present yet invisible, Jennings was there as the former president received a queue of notables: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster. Young men of learning came, too. They were enthralled as the sage held forth on the fine points of the Constitution and other political and literary subjects. As the constant servant in Madison’s study, Jennings listened to this “feast of reason” on a daily basis. The Madisons’ niece said that Jennings “sighed for freedom . . . was enamoured with freedom.” Considering what he was hearing, how could he not? Jennings absorbed the theoretical underpinnings that allowed him to identify his innate yearning for freedom as a natural right of man.
James Madison died in the early morning of June 28, 1836 and his manservant left the only eyewitness account: “he ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out.” Jennings had reason to expect his liberty by the terms of Madison’s will. Edward Coles, a protégé of Madison concerned with his legacy, thought he had talked his mentor into freeing all one hundred of his slaves. He was devastated when he discovered that Madison had instead bequeathed them to his wife Dolley. “Mr. Madison’s course has been most unfortunate for his memory, and for the peace and happiness of his Widow,” wrote Coles, “he had now died without having freed one [slave]—no not even Paul.”
The widow Madison (“as she knew was her husband’s wish”) included a term in her 1841 will that would free “my mulatto man Paul,” the only slave so treated. But when Dolley sold the plantation and moved back to Washington, she considered Jennings an integral member of the household and brought him with her, separating him from his wife and children, who were owned by a Virginia neighbor. Shortly thereafter, in 1844, Jennings’s wife died. Thinking of his now motherless children, the youngest only two, Jennings knew he needed his freedom now.
He determined to raise his sale price, “whatever he (sic) might be.” Dolley set the price at $200, below Jennings’s worth as a skilled houseman, but more than he could possibly pay. In financial straits herself, his mistress hired out Jennings to President James Polk at the White House, just a block away from her Lafayette Square home, but kept his wages “to the last red cent.”
That was when Jennings knocked on the door of Senator Daniel Webster. Even for a slave, it helps to have acquaintances in high places. Webster came to the rescue, loaning Jennings his purchase price, and striking a deal whereby Jennings would work in Webster’s employ to reimburse the advance at the rate of $8.00 per month.
On an early spring day in 1847 Webster handed Jennings the document that at last granted him, at the age of forty-eight, his liberty. He still owed Webster a substantial sum, but this he would pay back “with his own free hands.”
Also of interest:
- Electronic edition of A Coloured Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison by Paul Jennings at the University of North Carolina “Documenting the South” website
- Read more about Paul Jennings at James Madison’s Montpelier, where Elizabeth Dowling Taylor was formerly Director of Education
Related LOA works: James Madison: Writings; Slave Narratives