By any measure, the Paul Jennings who went to the White House was an exceptional boy. He had “managed to learn to read and write, rare for a slave during a period when it was common for free poor people to substitute a mark for a signature because they were unable to write their own names.” Elizabeth Dowling Taylor speculates that the “likely picture that emerges is of a young Paul absorbing language skills by ‘standing in’ on lessons offered to one or more boys of the Madison extended family. Listening in, secondhand learning: this is perhaps the first instance of Jennings taking advantage of his circumstances.”
Those circumstances were, of course, the household of one of the most prominent and influential Americans of the day, who in 1787 had played a central, indeed essential, role in the shaping of the U.S. Constitution. The Madisons were wealthy landowners and cultured people as well, and Jennings — whose mother was a house servant — seems to have been frequently in James Madison’s presence from a very early age. Taylor writes:
“His exposure to the visual and auditory ‘feast’ at Montpelier was a daily education. The light, the knowledge was shared with him, even if inadvertently. Thus enlightened and informed, he pondered on ways to secure his birthright, the gift Nature had bestowed. Yes, he sighed for freedom, but he did not choose life as a fugitive. . . . Instead, for the time being, Jennings fashioned a life of meaning while still enslaved. He learned to balance his divided loyalties carefully. He knew how to succeed within the system in which he was trapped. He was good at what he did, always the unobtrusive figure in the background, there to attend to his master’s needs, to anticipate his needs. Madison saw Jennings as trustworthy and capable, and he, in turn, had reason to take pride in his skills and usefulness. But Jennings was also good at gaming the system, judging when to stretch or risk his ‘place,’ and not lacking for courage to follow through.”
During their eight White House years, the Madisons, and thus Jennings, moved back and forth between the president’s house and the family plantation. Washington in the summer was unbearable, while Montpelier was comparatively comfortable. There Jennings, “besides serving as the master’s valet, was the butler or houseman and held the responsibility of head servant.” He greeted visitors at the front door — one of them described him as “courteous, well-bred and well dressed” — and presided over the dining-room table and sideboard. He “set the standards for management of the household, and it was his responsibility to ensure that its enslaved members were fit for skilled service.”
As slaveholders the Madisons were fairly typical of their time and place. Life for slaves in Northern Virginia was less onerous than for those in the Deep South — though it was still slavery — and Madison, who as a young man had briefly wished “to depend as little as possible . . . on the labour of slaves,” was “a garden-variety slaveholder” who “followed the basic patterns and norms for slaves’ living conditions and treatment that had long been established on Virginia plantations.” Like his great friend Thomas Jefferson, he knew that slavery was wrong and wished that it could be extirpated from the young republic, but he did nothing about it.
We know as much as we do about Jennings — and it isn’t all that much — from the testimony of people who encountered him at Montpelier and the White House and from “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison,” a brief memoir he recounted to John Brooks Russell, a white man who had befriended him while both worked at the pension office in Washington during the Civil War. The reminiscence was first published as a magazine piece, then as a booklet. It “has been cited by scholars over the years and the text can be found on the Internet, [but] it is not widely known, and has never been published in a new edition since the 1865 original.” It is published now as an appendix to “A Slave in the White House.”
Taylor probably has made the most that could be made from the material available to her, but she has had to do a lot of stretching in order to turn Jennings’s story into a full-length book. Formerly director of education at Montpelier and director of interpretation at Monticello, she is well versed in the history and culture of late 18th-century and early 19th-century Virginia and thus is able to pad out “A Slave in the White House” with a great deal of information, some of it interesting and some of it not, about the Madisons and their far-flung connections. Despite the book’s title , only 30 of its 228 pages of text are actually devoted to the White House years, so readers should be aware that “A Slave in the White House” offers both more and less than its title promises.
Still, it is a useful and informative if slender book. Interestingly, though the Madisons made occasional noises about freeing some or all of their slaves, nothing came of it and indeed after her husband’s death Dolley Madison engineered a fire sale of slaves, some of whom found themselves shipped to the Deep South. By that time Jennings had won the admiration of Daniel Webster, who was perpetually short of funds but somehow found ways to help slaves purchase their freedom. One of these was Jennings, who by the end of his life in 1874 had been married three times (his first two wives died) and produced numerous children and grandchildren. In August 2009 about two dozen of his descendants gathered in the East Room of the White House to be photographed beneath the great full-length Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Two centuries earlier that portrait had been rescued from the White House by Dolley Madison — and Paul Jennings.