A Slave In The White House: Paul Jennings And The Madisons, by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
There has been a growing number of books in recent years that have demonstrated the role of slavery in the early American Republic, much of which has decreased the esteem in which our nation’s founding fathers–especially the southern ones–have been held . Likewise there is a contemporary trend, which this Berkley-trained author would be well aware of, to look at history from the point of view of ordinary people who were not the elites that usually make it into the historical record. Yet for all of the attempts this book makes at populist history, it is quite remarkable that this book is about an elite–a literate mulatto gentleman whose rise from slavery ended with him a substantial property owner in Washington DC and the patriarch of a large family that, although daughtered out, remains a part of the contemporary professional black elite to this day. This is a book that spends a lot of time talking about famous people from the perspective of their largely invisible black servants, and despite my lack of sympathy with the author’s political worldview, this book is a worthwhile one in showing a life whose story deserve to be told and heard.
Overall, this book is a conventional biography in terms of its chronological focus and its great interest in matters of political history. Its most unconventional qualities include an appendix that contains the entirety of Paul Jenning’s own memoir, which was the first White House memoir in existence, discussing his youth as a liveried slave of President Madison during his time in the White House. Aside from the memoir, this book is of value in demonstrating through the heroic research of the author and those who helped her that Paul Jennings, its subject, lived a life worth remembering and honoring. Born in slavery to a mixed-race mother and a putative white merchant father, Paul was trained as a valet and coachman and worked alongside James and then Dolly Madison for many years. During that time he married, helped save the famous Stuart painting of George Washington from destruction during the War of 1812, had several children, and eventually purchased his own freedom through a savvy use of networking. The author writes here with a great deal of admiration for Jennings, and that admiration appears to be deserved if one appreciates literate slaves who preserve the honor of their masters while simultaneously seeking to undermine slavery from inside and finding their own freedom and their own dignity. Jenning’s life led him to become a published author as well as the father of some brave Union soldiers who was also active in helping fugitive slaves, all of which is worthy of being honored.
Whether or not someone appreciates this book depends on a few factors. Those who hold to a view of our founding fathers as saints who could do no wrong will likely find much to criticize in the author’s strong assertions that while Madison was an extraordinary genius in political science that he was fairly ordinary as a slave owner. Dolly Madison comes off even worse with her betrayal of her father’s antislavery principles, her own trafficking of slaves to support her extravagant hospitality in Washington DC, and the fact that she got unearned credit for saving the Washington painting that should have belonged to some of her quick-thinking hired and enslaved help. Dolly Madison’s neer-do-well son comes off even worse with his alcoholism and troublemaking leading him to a melancholy end. Within this book there is a tension between the rise of Jennings and his family from slavery to freedom and the decline of the slaveowning elites of the South like Madison and others. As a historical work, this deserves a great deal of attention even where the author does not always come off as particularly likable in her judgments.
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