Paul Jennings was born into slavery on the plantation of James and Dolley Madison in Virginia, later becoming part of the Madison household staff at the White House. Once finally emancipated by Senator Daniel Webster later in life, he would give an aged and impoverished Dolley Madison, his former owner, money from his own pocket, write the first White House memoir, and see his sons fight with the Union Army in the Civil War. He died a free man in northwest Washington at 75. Based on correspondence, legal documents, and journal entries rarely seen before, this amazing portrait of the times reveals the mores and attitudes toward slavery of the nineteenth century, and sheds new light on famous characters such as James Madison, who believed the white and black populations could not coexist as equals; French General Lafayette who was appalled by this idea; Dolley Madison, who ruthlessly sold Paul after her husband's death; and many other since forgotten slaves, abolitionists, and civil right activists.
The complex relationship between a president and his bondman abounds in ironies in this revealing study. Historian Taylor reconstructs the life of Jennings, a slave belonging to President James Madison who became his valet, barber and major-domo, bought his freedom from Madison's widow Dolly, and published admiring reminiscences of the couple. Taylor fleshes out slender sources into a convincing recreation of Jennings's relatively privileged but precarious existence, setting it against a vivid portrait of the deeply conflicted Madison, a theorist of liberty who lived off of slave labor and a master who prided himself on his paternalism yet broke his vow never to sell his "charges." At the heart of the story is the tension between the warm human relationship between Madison and Jennings and the remorseless inhumanity of slavery as an institution and ideology; in one tragicomic vignette, Madison declaims into a guest's ear trumpet about slaves' unfitness to live free among whites while his servants studiously pretend not to hear him. Taylor paints a fascinating portrait of slavery, hypocrisy, and one man's quiet struggle to overcome its injustices. Photos.