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Paul Jennings, b. 1799
A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison
Brooklyn: G.C. Beadle, 1865.

Summary

Paul Jennings (1799-1874) was a slave whose service as a body servant to James Madison (1751-1836) and Daniel Webster (1782-1852) made him a witness to historic national events. Jennings was the son of an English trader named Benjamin Jennings and a slave who lived on Madison's Montpelier, Virginia, estate. Jennings lived in the White House during the Madison presidency (1809-17) and "was always with Mr. Madison till he died" in 1836 (p. 18). Ten years later, Dolley Madison (1768-1849) sold Jennings to an insurance agent, but Daniel Webster bought him back just six months afterwards for one hundred and twenty dollars (Chase, 54). Webster allowed Jennings to work out his freedom, crediting Jennings' service at the rate of eight dollars per month. Jennings subsequently plotted to free seventy slaves living in the District of Columbia but escaped the prosecution that other conspirators faced when the fugitives were recaptured. Jennings lived to work as a book binder in the Department of the Interior, a position that enabled him to save enough money to buy his own house.

The Reminiscences (1865) of Paul Jennings are written by an unknown author ("J.B.R.") who judges that Jennings' "recollections were worth writing down in almost his own language" (iii). The author is primarily concerned with providing an insider's perspective on the War of 1812, but his narrative also provides insight into the role of African Americans in Washington society, along with the earliest account of life inside the White House.

When the British attack Washington in 1814, Madison reviews the troops charged with the city's defense. Among them are several "tall, strapping negroes, mixed with white sailors and marines" (p. 7). Madison asks the commanding officer "if his 'negroes would not run on the approach of the British,'" and the officer replies that "they don't know how to run; they will die by their guns first" (pp. 7-8). The African American soldiers fight well and do not run, but the city falls nonetheless. During the evacuation of Washington, Jennings escapes to the countryside, where a white wagoner threatens to kill him with a gun. Jennings coolly replies that the man should "have used it at Bladensburg" to fight the British and is saved from retaliation only by the arrival of Madison (p. 10).

In addition to describing the war, Jennings provides insights into Madison's relationship with slaves outside a martial context. He attributes a popular legend associated with George Washington to his own master. While Madison is riding one day, he meets "a colored man, who took off his hat. Mr. M. raised his, to the surprise of [his companion]; to whom Mr. M. replied, 'I never allow a negro to excel me in politeness'" (pp. 17-18). Madison's reply implies a belief in his own racial superiority, but in other interactions with slaves, Madison treats African Americans with respect, and Jennings calls him "one of the best men that ever lived" (p. 15). Jennings "never knew him to strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it," and Madison even issues verbal reprimands in private, rather than in public, in order to spare the feelings of his slaves (p. 15).

After the president's death, Dolley Madison becomes impoverished, and Jennings repays President Madison's kindness through his treatment of Madison's widow, giving "her small sums from my own pocket" (p. 15). Jennings also gives Dolley Madison the credit for emancipating him, even though a bill of sale reprinted at the beginning of the Reminiscences and other historical evidence makes it clear that Webster is the one who actually gave Jennings his freedom.

Works Consulted: Chase, Henry, "Plotting a Course for Freedom," American Visions 10:1 (Feb 1995): 52-55; Edwards, G. Franklin and Michael R. Winston, "Commentary: The Washington of Paul Jennings — White House Slave, Free Man, and Conspirator for Freedom," White House History 1:1 (1983): 52-63, 27 Oct. 2008, http://www.whitehousehistory.org/08/subs/images_subs/whitehousehistory_01-jennings.pdf.

Zachary Hutchins

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