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A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons, by Elizabeth Downing Taylor.

April 13, 2013

A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons, by Elizabeth Downing Taylor.  New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

An extensively researched biography of a man who was a slave of James and Dolly Madison in the White House and Montpelier and when freed became part of the vibrant community of African Americans in nineteenth-century Washington, D.C.

Paul Jennings lived a unique life.  Born a slave at Montpelier, he accompanied the Madisons to Washington, serving them while James Madison served as Jefferson’s Secretary of State and when they moved into the white House themselves.  He was involved in, and later wrote about, fleeing the British attack during the War of 1812.  Afterward he became Madison’s valet and frequent attendant until his death.   Although James Madison had planned that his slaves be freed when he died, his widow did not do so.  With her own financial resources shrinking, she brought Jennings to Washington and made him her major house slave while selling off most of the other slaves.  Eventually Daniel Webster bought Jennings and assisted in emancipating him.   Jennings then became involved in the local abolitionist movement and eventually took a position with the pensions office of the Department of Interior.  After the Civil War, he was part of the city’s cluster of educated and prosperous group of African Americans.

Elizabeth Downing Taylor has thoroughly researched Jenning’s life and all those whose lives intersected his.  She holds a Ph.D. and worked for twenty years in the education department at Monticello, and seems to have collected relevant materials for years.  In this book, she not only tells all that can be known about Jennings but meticulously includes wonderful details about his family, the Madisons, early Washington, D.C. and much more.  Taylor takes special pains to portray the United States in the early 1800s from the prospective of slaves.  This gives a different perspective on the events that occurred.  She gives us fascinating context about all the places Jennings lived and the people who influenced his life.  I loved the details, but their sheer number works against the narrative unity of the book.

One of themes that Taylor explores is the manner in which individuals around Madison were trying to make him face the incompatibility of slavery in a country that prided itself on its liberty.  Even before the abolitionist movement became a force in national politics, Madison expressed his dislike of slavery, but did not see or admit how it could be ended.  He supported colonization and the unpractical illusion that all the slaves in the US could be returned to Africa. In his view, blacks and whites could never live peacefully together as free men.  Or even that his wife could survive without depending on slaves.

Thanks to Library Things Early Reviewers and Palgrave Macmillan Publishers, I received a copy of this book to read and review.

I recommend this book for all who enjoy reading history from the bottom up, the history of slavery and emancipation in the USA, or simply a detailed account of how life was lived in the past.

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