PAUL JENNINGS & WHITE HOUSE SLAVERY: A DIGITAL ARCHIVE FOR ENGLISH 541 - "THE RUDE QUARTER CENTURY"

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A Brief History

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Paul Jennings

& WHITE HOUSE SLAVERY

Paul Jennings was not the first slave to play an important role in White House life. Since the beginning, slavery had been a key component in the White House.

"Twelve American presidents owned slaves and eight of them, starting with Washington, owned slaves while in office. Almost from the very start, slaves were a common sight in the executive mansion. A list of construction workers building the White House in 1795 includes five slaves - named Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel -- all put to work as carpenters. Other slaves worked as masons in the government quarries, cutting the stone for early government buildings, including the White House and U.S. Capitol. According to records kept by the White House Historical Association, slaves often worked seven days a week -- even in the hot and humid Washington summers.

In 1800, John Adams was the first president to live in the White House, moving in before it was finished. Adams was a staunch opponent of slavery, and kept no slaves. Future presidents, however, didn't follow his lead. Thomas Jefferson, who succeeded Adams, wrote that slavery was an "assemblage of horrors" and yet he brought his slaves with him. Early presidents were expected to pay their household expenses themselves, and many who came from the so-called "slave states" simply brought their slaves with them.

Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant all owned slaves but not during their time in office. James Madison, Jefferson's successor, held slaves all of his life including while he was in office. During the war of 1812 Madison's slaves helped remove material from the White House shortly before the British burned the building.

In 1865 one of Madison's former slaves, Paul Jennings, wrote the first White House memoir: "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of Life in the White House." In the book, Jennings called Madison "one of the best men that ever lived" and said Madison "never would strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it."

There were other presidents who treated their slaves less kindly.

James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor all owned slaves while they were in office. The last of these, President Taylor, said owning slaves was a Constitutional right and he said slave-owners like himself would "appeal to the sword if necessary" to keep them. The Civil War, of course, put that opinion to the test."

CNN article: "Slaves helped build White House, U.S. Capitol," by Susan Roesgen and Aaron Cooper. http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/12/02/slaves.white.house/index.html

"Carpenter's Roll for the President's House." Wage rolls for May 1795 list five slaves Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel, three of whom were slaves owned by White House architect James Hoban.

National Archives and Records Administration

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