After Denise’s tour-de-force of a post on Sunday (if you haven’t already, be sure to read it here: I refuse to honor George Washington, and ‘founders’ who enslaved and sold human beings ), my efforts seem meager by comparison. But that’s never stopped me before, and I think it’s important to continue the litany of shame that is as much a part of our national heritage as all the mythology we’ve created about the Founders and their successors. Here then are the final six slaveholding presidents.
He campaigned as a Whig and promoted himself as the hardy frontiersman and military “hero” who had defeated the Shawnees at the Battle of Tippecanoe. (The story of his militant and genocidal actions against Native Americans is worth knowing but not the focus of this post.) In fact, William Henry Harrison was a Virginian who had grown up on a plantation made successful through the generations by slave laborers; his father, Benjamin Harrison V was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. After the death of his father and then mother, Harrison inherited a small bit of land and some slaves. Because he had joined the military upon his father’s death, he sold the land, and it is generally assumed that he sold the slaves at some point before moving to the Northwest Territory after his time in the military. There are uncorroborated reports, however, that he fathered up to six children with one of the female slaves, Dilsia. “When he ran for president he did not want “bastard slave children” around, so he gave four of his children to his brother, who sold them to a Georgia planter. Through this family line, Harrison is the great-grandfather of famous black civil rights activist Walter Francis White. White was the president of the NAACP from 1931–1955.” (Dilsia)
John Tyler was another Virginian from a prominent and slaveholding family (his father had been Thomas Jefferson’s college roommate and was Virginia governor from 1808-1811). He was a lifelong slaveholder, owning up to 70 slaves at one time; a strong advocate of “states’ rights”; opposed the Missouri Compromise, arguing that slavery should be allowed anywhere and that the expansion would increase the demand for slaves and thus improve their living conditions; was a president of the Virginia Colonization Society, which advocated the relocation of African-Americans to Africa; and was virulent in his hatred of abolitionists, fed in part by the claims in the abolitionist press that he had fathered children with his enslaved women. John Tyler, who was born in 1790, was a prolific procreator; the last of his 15 acknowledged children was born when he was 70 years old, and two of his grandsons are still alive today. Despite that, there has been no DNA testing done to compare between the grandsons and those who claim to be descendants by virtue of their enslaved foremothers. (See John Tyler, The Accidental President for greater detail about the possible Tyler-Brown family connection.)
Tennessean James Knox Polk was a slaveholder for most of his life, after inheriting land and up to 20 slaves upon his father’s death. He soon sold the Tennessee land and purchased richer, more fertile acreage in Mississippi, which necessitated the purchase of additional slaves to clear and prepare the new plantation. He was largely an absentee owner and still maintained Tennessee residency. He moved most of his Tennessee slaves to Mississippi without informing them that they were going south; when he moved into the White House, where he was expected to pay the wages of the household servants, he replaced the servants with slaves from his Tennessee home. Polk died three months after leaving the White House, and his will had the non-binding clause that his slaves should be freed upon the death of his wife, Sarah. In 1860, however, Sarah sold half-ownership of the Mississippi plantation and its enslaved population to the overseer of the property, and if the 13th Amendment hadn’t granted their freedom in 1865, Sarah Polk would have been legally constrained from freeing them without the full agreement of the half-owner…an unlikely prospect.
The number of people that Zachary Taylor enslaved at any given time are reported with some inconsistency, but in 1847, he is quoted as saying, “I too have been all my life industrious and frugal, and that the fruits thereof are mainly invested in slaves, of whom I own three hundred.” (Celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation: Zachary Taylor) Although born on a Virginia plantation, his family soon gave up their exhausted land there and moved to Kentucky. By the early 1800s, Taylor’s father was a large landholder again and with land, came the purchase of at least 26 slaves. Despite being a Southern slaveholder, he was opposed to the expansion of slavery in the territory gained from Mexico, and as a staunch nationalist who saw the country as indivisible, threatened to use military force against secessionists. At the same time, he brought the enslaved William Oldham to the White House to act as his body-servant, and while in office, instructed his son to purchase a plantation in Mississippi “with 80 good hands.” (How Zachary Taylor’s Death Changed the Course of American History)
Slaveholder [Andrew] Johnson
Andrew Johnson grew up in Raleigh, NC, poor and uneducated; as a young man, he apprenticed as a tailor and after running away before fulfilling his commitment, eventually settled in Tennessee. His business as a tailor grew and prospered, but he decided to sell the business to concentrate on politics. Fortunately, due to the guidance of his wife (who also helped him to learn to read and write), he had invested in real estate, including a farm. It was the purchase of the farm that “necessitated” the purchase of his first of 7-8 humans, a 14-year old girl named Dolly to help in the house. Johnson’s wife was an invalid, so it is unsurprising that rumors started during his lifetime about the nature of his relationship with Dolly. As with so many historical sites, the slave story is whitewashed, and the rumor that Johnson fathered Dolly’s three children is never directly mentioned.
In 1842, Andrew Johnson was a State Senator. During this year he bought his first slave. Dolly, a fourteen year old girl, bravely approached Andrew Johnson and asked him to buy her because, according to her future son William, she “liked his looks.” A short time later, Johnson bought Dolly’s half-brother Sam as well. In time, Dolly would give birth to three children, Liz, Florence and William. Sam and his wife, Margaret, had nine children.
In 1857, Andrew Johnson bought a boy of about 13 named Henry. Henry traveled to the White House with the Johnson family.
Johnson claimed to Frederick Douglass that he had never sold a slave. (Slaves of Andrew Johnson)
Despite the fact that his father Jesse was an abolitionist and writer for the Ohio abolitionist paper, Castigator, Grant did not claim to be an abolitionist or even anti-slavery. When he married Julia Dent, from a slaveholding family in Missouri, the marriage came with four enslaved people that had been with Julia since childhood; it’s unclear whether she was ever actually their “legal” owner or whether she ever shared “ownership” with Grant. What is clear is that after he left the military in 1854, he tried his hand at farming near his father-in-law’s property, and sometime in 1857, he purchased William Jones from his father-in-law. In March of 1859, he filed a manumission document which read, “I Ulysses S Grant of the City and County of St. Louis in the State of Missouri, for diverse good and valuable considerations me hereunto moving, do hereby emancipate and set free from Slavery my negro man William, sometimes called William Jones(Jones) of Mullatto complexion, aged about thirty-five years, and about five feet seven inches in height and being the same slave purchased by me of Frederick Dent-And I do hereby manumit, emancipate & set free said William from slavery forever.” (Myths & Misunderstandings | Grant as a slaveholder ) Grant’s views about slavery evolved, so that by the time he was president and beyond, no less than Frederick Douglass believed, “To Grant more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement.” (Source: Quoted in Frank Scaturro, President Grant Reconsidered)