Today’s post is prompted by Dee’s observation that we celebrate Presidents’ Day with no mention of the fact that twelve of them were slaveholders. It occurred to me that I wasn’t sure which twelve those were, beyond the Virginians, Washington and Jefferson. In a just world, we would know the names of those held in bondage and their stories and those of their descendants. With the exception of Sally Hemings and her children, those names are mostly lost, but we can name the presidents. And we can remember our history as it truly is. (Six presidents this week; the last six next week.)
The “father of our country,” with his wife, held more than 300 people in bondage; his will directed that his slaves should be freed after the death of his widow. (Only one slave, William Lee, who had served as Washington’s valet and aide during the Revolutionary War, was freed immediately upon his death.) Martha Washington didn’t wait for her death; she freed her inherited slaves just about a year after Washington’s death in 1799. Martha did not, however, free the slaves she herself had inherited from her first husband (by law, she could not), and when she died in 1802, those people went to Daniel Park Custis’ descendants. Since some of Washington’s slaves had married Martha’s dower slaves, the separation of families was only delayed, not altogether avoided.
Over the course of his life, Jefferson held more than 600 people in bondage, including Sally Hemings, the probable half-sister of his late wife and the mother of five children fathered by Jefferson (although this is disputed by some, who claim Jefferson’s brother or nephews may have fathered the children). It is presumed that Jefferson’s sexual use of Hemings started when he was in Paris as Minister to France (starting in 1787) or shortly thereafter; Jefferson was 44 and Hemings was 14. At his death in 1826, Jefferson’s will freed his children by Hemings who were still enslaved (one had died young and two had been freed previously after receiving training as artisans), as well as three other men related to Hemings. However, Jefferson did not free the wife or children of one of the men (Joseph Fossett), and they were sold to four different owners. In 1827, the 130 slaves remaining at Monticello were sold at a slave auction to pay off the debts of the Jefferson estate.
The founding father who proposed the 3/5ths Compromise held more than 100 people in bondage. During his life, Madison only freed one slave: a slave named Billey (William Gardener), a gift from Grandmother to an 8-year old Madison when Billey was a baby. Madison did not sell Billey outright, but into a 7-year indentured servant contract in Philadelphia in 1783. (Gardener died in 1795.) Nor did Madison free any slaves upon his death. He left the slaves to his wife Dolley with the request that she only sell them with their consent. Montpelier was in dire financial straits, and although a Quaker whose father had emancipated her family’s slaves in 1783, Dolley Madison did not comply and sold the slaves to pay off debts. Even Paul Jennings, who (as a child) is believed to have assisted Dolley Madison in saving the Stuart painting of Washington, was not spared. Despite her promise that she would free him in her own will, Dolley Madison sold him in 1846, and shortly thereafter, he was sold to Daniel Webster for $120. Webster allowed Jennings to purchase his own freedom at the rate of $8 per month. In 1863, Jennings published A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, the first memoir ever written about life in the White House.
Yet another founding father with a slaveholding history (75 human beings), Monroe supported establishing colonies outside of the United States for freed-men and -women. He was an active member of the American Colonization Society, which used federal grant money to buy land in what is now Liberia for freed slaves. His efforts did not derive from altruistic motives; when governor of Virginia in 1800, an aborted slave revolt reinforced his fear and expectation that slave uprisings would increase in both number and level of violence. He felt, therefore, that freeing slaves was unwise unless they could be sent away to a place where they could not influence or incite current slaves. Madison never freed a slave in his lifetime. In the 1820s, he put his two grain-growing plantations on the market; as cotton became king in the South, the profitability of other crops lessened, and Madison was facing financial ruin (cotton did not grow well in his area of Virginia, five miles from Charlottesville). As the farmland was sold, so too were the slaves, with the stipulation that families be kept together. A large number of slaves were sent to a buyer in Florida; there is no documentation readily available to show if Madison’s stipulation was kept.
When Jackson bought The Hermitage in 1804, he owned nine slave; as The Hermitage grew, so did the number of slaves. At his death in 1845, 150 slaves lived and worked on the property. On one hand, he was a harsh, cruel, and unforgiving master who also participated in slave trading. On another, he [unsuccessfully] sought the prosecution of one of his overseers for killing one of his slaves and is quoted as saying, “I could not bear the idea of inhumanity to my poor negroes.” (Andrew Jackson, Robert V. Remini, 1977. p133) Despite the apparent contradiction, it’s all a part of the mindset that views people as property; slaves as assets; and ties paternalism with profitability. Jackson never freed a slave during his lifetime and actively advertised rewards for runaway slaves. He didn’t free any slaves upon his death:
It is clear from Jackson’s correspondence with his family and business partners during and after his presidency that he was a man concerned not only with maintaining proﬁtable plantations but also with leaving his family in a secure ﬁnancial position once he was dead. ‘I will, if my means are equal to the object, free you from debt’, Jackson wrote his son in a typical letter. ‘The farm with the aid of your own industry and aconomy [sic] must support us, and after I am gone, you and your family’. Owning slaves to perform the labor required for proﬁtability was an unquestioned necessity. Andrew Jackson, Slavery, and Historians
Slaveholder Van Buren
After wading in the slaveholding swamp for awhile, it’s tempting to celebrate because Martin Van Buren “only” owned one slave in his lifetime (as a child growing up in New York, his family owned six human beings). It’s also tempting to see Van Buren as enlightened for his time, because he opposed the expansion of slavery into the western states, although he did not favor abolition. But I think the tale of Van Buren’s “one and only” slave tells the story best. Tom ran away from Van Buren in or about 1814 and remained free for 8-10 years. When he was captured in Massachusetts, Van Buren could have made the choice to keep Tom (who, if born in New York after 1799 and returned there, would be subject to the Gradual Emancipation Act in New York and would be free in 1827). Instead, Van Buren either offered to sell Tom to his captor for $50 or accepted the captor’s offer…accounts vary. Van Buren is alleged to have made the further stipulation that he be “taken without violence”, i.e. that the new owner would treat the slave well. The accounts I’ve found of Tom’s fate diverge at this point. Some say Van Buren’s offer for a $50 sale was rejected, and Tom was able to remain free. Others say that the sale was completed, and Tom’s years of freedom ended. Clearly, the consequences of being Van Buren’s one and only slave were neither minor, to be celebrated, or an example of enlightened behavior.