Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Dolley Madison, War of 1812, & Slaves

Engraving of Dolley Payne Madison. 1812. Attributed to William Chappell. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Dolley Madison (1768-1849), a North Carolina Quaker born in Guilford County, was the wife of President James Madison. She rejected the somber traditional garb of her religion in favor of high fashion & according to this article from The New York Times, apparently she rejected Quaker ideas about slavery as well.

Dolly Madison, painted by Gilbert Stuart. White House Collection.

The New York Times
Madison and the White House, Through the Memoir of a Slave
By Rachel L. Swarns Published: August 15, 2009

Washington — In 1809, a young boy from a wealthy Virginia estate stepped into President James Madison’s White House and caught the first glimpse of his new home. The East Room was unfinished, he recalled years later in a memoir. Pennsylvania Avenue was unpaved and “always in an awful condition from either mud or dust,” he recounted.

Mr. Jennings was a slave in the White House and became the first person to put his recollections of it into a memoir. “The city was a dreary place,” he continued.

His name was Paul Jennings, and he was an unlikely chronicler of the Madison presidency. When he first walked into the Executive Mansion, he was a 10-year-old slave.

But over the course of his long life, Mr. Jennings witnessed, and perhaps participated in, the rescue of George Washington’s portrait from the White House during the War of 1812 and stood by the former president’s side at his deathbed. He bought his freedom, helped to organize a daring (and unsuccessful) slave escape and became the first person to put his White House recollections into a memoir.

Next week, Mr. Jennings’s story will take center stage when dozens of his descendants gather for a reunion in the White House. Historians say it will be a remarkable moment in the history of the mansion, which was built with slave labor and now houses President Obama, the first black person to hold the office, and his family.

Historians say the visit will highlight the intimate, day-to-day role that enslaved men and women played in the White House, a community that is little known and whose members have long languished in obscurity.

“It really is a story that isn’t well told yet,” said Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. “It lets people realize just how big a shadow slavery cast on America.”

The White House curator, William G. Allman, said few historical records existed about the black people who lived and worked in the building during its earliest years. Slaves were barred from learning to read and write, and their owners often considered their stories inconsequential.

So the relatively detailed accounting of Mr. Jennings’s life is notable, particularly because he was so closely linked to President Madison and to the portrait of George Washington, which is considered the White House’s most valuable historical object. The portrait, painted by Gilbert Stuart, is the only item currently on display that was also present when the White House opened in 1800. The Jennings family will view the painting during their White House reunion on Aug. 24. The Obamas are expected to be away on vacation that day.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a family group like this visit before,” Mr. Allman said. “It’s just one of those stories that’s never going to be front and center because the records are very scanty.”

New details about Mr. Jennings’s life and his family have emerged through the research of Beth Taylor, a research associate at Montpelier, the Madison plantation in Virginia. Over the past two years, Ms. Taylor has pored over court records and tracked down and interviewed his descendants, discovering historical documents and the only known photograph of Mr. Jennings.

She also found a rare edition of Mr. Jennings’s recollections, which were released in 1865 under the title “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.” (A white acquaintance of Mr. Jennings collected his reminiscences and got them published.)

In the 19-page memoir, Mr. Jennings, who served as a footman and later a valet to President Madison, recalled the chaotic escape from the White House hours before the British burned the building in 1814.

He described President Madison as a frugal and temperate man who owned only one suit, socialized with Thomas Jefferson and was so careful with his liquor that he probably never “drank a quart of brandy in his whole life.”

Mr. Jennings said he often served and shaved the president and recalled that his master was kind to his slaves. He was 48 when he finally bought his freedom, years after Madison’s death in 1836.

As a free man, Mr. Jennings worked in the government’s pension office, bought property and even helped support the former first lady Dolley Madison with “small sums from my own pocket” when she fell on hard times.

Mr. Jennings, who died in 1874 at age 75, did not discuss his personal difficulties in his memoir, but Ms. Taylor and others say he encountered many hardships. As a slave, he was forced to live apart from his wife and children, who lived on another plantation. And he seems to have chafed under Mrs. Madison’s ownership after her husband died.

Articles in abolitionist newspapers uncovered by researchers at the University of Virginia’s Dolley Madison Digital Edition, an online collection of Mrs. Madison’s correspondence, reported that she treated her slaves poorly. In March 1848, the Liberator newspaper published a letter charging that Mrs. Madison had hired out Mr. Jennings to others and then kept “the last red cent” of his pay, “leaving him to get his clothes by presents, night work, or as he might.”

The letter also said Mrs. Madison had refused to free Mr. Jennings, as her husband had wished. Instead, she sold him to an insurance agent, who in turn sold him to Senator Daniel Webster for $120. (He promptly set Mr. Jennings free and let him work off the debt as a servant in his household.)

Julie Doxsey found the articles under the supervision of Holly Shulman, the editor of the Dolley Madison Digital Edition. They said they believed this might be the reason Mr. Jennings dared to challenge publicly Mrs. Madison’s claim that she saved Washington’s portrait during the War of 1812, a charge that threatened to tarnish her image...

The New York Times' article relies on the first-hand account of Paul Jennings. I think reviewing his direct statements about Dolley Madison, might be helpful in understanding just what his real opinion of the president's wife was, at least in 1865, when he dictated his memoir.

Dolley Madison, Engraving by Marion Doss

A COLORED MAN'S REMINISCENCES OF JAMES MADISON. By Paul Jennings. Published in Brooklyn by George C. Beadle. 1865.

The preface of the book relates, Among the laborers at the Department of the Interior is an intelligent colored man, Paul Jennings, who was born a slave on President Madison's estate, in Montpelier, Va., in 1799. His reputed father was Benj. Jennings, an English trader there; his mother, a slave of Mr. Madison, and the grand-daughter of an Indian. Paul was a "body servant" of Mr. Madison, till his death, and afterwards of Daniel Webster, having purchased his freedom of Mrs. Madison. His character for sobriety, truth, and fidelity, is unquestioned; and as he was a daily witness of interesting events, I have thought some of his recollections were worth writing down in almost his own language.

The memoir begins, When Mr. Madison was chosen President, we came on and moved into the White House; the east room was not finished, and Pennsylvania Avenue was not paved, but was always in an awful condition from either mud or dust. The city was a dreary place...Before the war of 1812 was declared, there were frequent consultations at the White House as to the expediency of doing it...

After the war had been going on for a couple of years, the people of Washington began to be alarmed for the safety of the city, as the British held Chesapeake Bay with a powerful fleet and army. Every thing seemed to be left to General Armstrong, then Secretary of war, who ridiculed the idea that there was any danger. But, in August, 1814, the enemy had got so near, there could be no doubt of their intentions. Great alarm existed, and some feeble preparations for defence were made...

Well, on the 24th of August, sure enough, the British reached Bladensburg, and the fight began between 11 and 12. Even that very morning General Armstrong assured Mrs. Madison there was no danger. The President, with General Armstrong, General Winder, Colonel Monroe, Richard Rush, Mr. Graham, Tench Ringgold, and Mr. Duvall, rode out on horseback to Bladensburg to see how things looked

Mrs. Madison ordered dinner to be ready at 3, as usual; I set the table myself, and brought up the ale, cider, and wine, and placed them in the coolers, as all the Cabinet and several military gentlemen and strangers were expected. While waiting, at just about 3, as Sukey, the house-servant, was lolling out of a chamber window, James Smith, a free colored man who had accompanied Mr. Madison to Bladensburg, gallopped up to the house, waving his hat, and cried out, "Clear out, clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!"

All then was confusion. Mrs. Madison ordered her carriage, and passing through the dining-room, caught up what silver she could crowd into her old-fashioned reticule, and then jumped into the chariot with her servant girl Sukey, and Daniel Carroll, who took charge of them; Jo. Bolin drove them over to Georgetown Heights; the British were expected in a few minutes.

Mr. Cutts, her brother-in-law, sent me to a stable on 14th street, for his carriage. People were running in every direction. John Freeman (the colored butler) drove off in the coachee with his wife, child, and servant; also a feather bed lashed on behind the coachee, which was all the furniture saved, except part of the silver and the portrait of Washington (of which I will tell you by-and-by).

I will here mention that although the British were expected every minute, they did not arrive for some hours; in the mean time, a rabble, taking advantage of the confusion, ran all over the White House, and stole lots of silver and whatever they could lay their hands on.

About sundown I walked over to the Georgetown ferry, and found the President and all hands (the gentlemen named before, who acted as a sort of body-guard for him) waiting for the boat. It soon returned, and we all crossed over, and passed up the road about a mile...I walked on to a Methodist minister's, and in the evening, while he was at prayer, I heard a tremendous explosion, and, rushing out, saw that the public buildings, navy yard, ropewalks, &c., were on fire.

1814 White House on Fire. William Strickland, engraver. Library of Congress.

 Mrs. Madison slept that night at Mrs. Love's, two or three miles over the river. After leaving that place she called in at a house, and went up stairs. The lady of the house learning who she was, became furious, and went to the stairs and screamed out, "Miss Madison! if that's you, come down and go out! Your husband has got mine out fighting, and d--you, you shan't stay in my house; so get out!"

Mrs. Madison complied, and went to Mrs. Minor's, a few miles further, where she stayed a day or two, and then returned to Washington, where she found Mr. Madison at her brother-in-law's, Richard Cutts, on F street. All the facts about Mrs. M. I learned from her servant Sukey. We moved into the house of Colonel John B. Taylor, corner of 18th street and New York Avenue, where we lived till the news of peace arrived...

It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment.

John Susé (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President's gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of. When the British did arrive, they ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had prepared for the President's party.

When the news of peace arrived, we were crazy with joy. Miss Sally Coles, a cousin of Mrs. Madison, and afterwards wife of Andrew Stevenson, since minister to England, came to the head of the stairs, crying out, "Peace! peace!"

1814 A view of the president's house in the city of Washington after the conflagration of the 24th of August 1814. Library of Congress.

Mrs. Madison was a remarkably fine woman. She was beloved by every body in Washington, white and colored. Whenever soldiers marched by, during the war, she always sent out and invited them in to take wine and refreshments, giving them liberally of the best in the house. Madeira wine was better in those days than now, and more freely drank.

Montpelier, Virginia home of James and Dolley Madison, painted by Baroness Hyde Neuville (1750-1849). Musse De Blerancourt, France.

In the last days of her life, before Congress purchased her husband's papers, she was in a state of absolute poverty, and I think sometimes suffered for the necessaries of life. While I was a servant to Mr. Webster, he often sent me to her with a market-basket full of provisions, and told me whenever I saw anything in the house that I thought she was in need of, to take it to her. I often did this, and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket, though I had years before bought my freedom of her.

Engraving of Dolley Madison by Charles Goodman (1796-1835) and Robert Piggot (1795-1887) from an oil painting by Bass Otis (1784-1861). Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Paul Jennings actually purchased his freedom from Daniel Webster by paying off his purchase cost in monthly payments of $8. Webster acquired Jennings from Pollard Webb who in turn bought him from Dolley Madison in 1846, ten years after James Madison's death. On the 10th of January, 1865, books, coins and autographs belonging to Edward M. Thomas, an African American, for many years Messenger to the House of Representatives, were sold at auction. Among other lots, an autograph of Daniel Webster, containing these words: "I have paid $120 for the freedom of Paul Jennings; he agrees to work out the same at $8 per month, to be furnished with board, clothes, washing."

Photograph of Paul Jennings owned by the Montpelier Foundation.

After paying off his contract with Webster, Jennings became a free man and began working at the Department of the Interior. In 1865, Jennings published, Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, the first memoir about the White House by one who had lived there. The publication remained obscure for many years, but today it is generally acknowledged as extremely important. It provides details about the city of Washington during the War of 1812 and gives an intimate look at the president's wife at that time and in her later life.

Portrait of Dolley Madison by John Frances Eugene Prud'homme (1800-1892). Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library.

Dolly Madison's Account of the British Burning of the White House from an Unfinished & Unsent Letter (which Dolley said she wrote to her sister on the day of the attack.)Tuesday Augt. 23d. 1814.  Dear Sister

My husband left me yesterday morng. to join Gen. Winder. He enquired anxiously whether I had courage, or firmness to remain in the President's house until his return, on the morrow, or succeeding day, and on my assurance that I had no fear but for him and the success of our army, he left me, beseeching me to take care of myself, and of the cabinet papers, public and private. I have since recd. two despatches from him, written with a pencil; the last is alarming, because he desires I should be ready at a moment's warning to enter my carriage and leave the city; that the enemy seemed stronger than had been reported, and that it might happen that they would reach the city, with intention to destroy it. . . . . I am accordingly ready; I have pressed as many cabinet papers into trunks as to fill one carriage; our private property must be sacrificed, as it is impossible to procure wagons for its transportation. I am determined not to go myself until I see Mr Madison safe, and he can accompany me, as I hear of much hostility towards him, . . . . disaffection stalks around us. . . . My friends and acquaintances are all gone; Even Col. C with his hundred men, who were stationed as a guard in the enclosure . . . . French John (a faithful domestic,) with his usual activity and resolution, offers to spike the cannon at the gate, and to lay a train of powder which would blow up the British, should they enter the house. To the last proposition I positively object, without being able, however, to make him understand why all advantages in war may not be taken.

Wednesday morng., twelve o'clock. Since sunrise I have been turning my spyglass in every direction and watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to discern the approach of my dear husband and his friends, but, alas, I can descry only groups of military wandering in all directions, as if there was a lack of arms, or of spirit to fight for their own firesides!

Three O'clock. Will you believe it, my Sister? We have had a battle or skirmish near Bladensburg, and I am still here within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him! Two messengers covered with dust, come to bid me fly; but I wait for him. . . . At this late hour a wagon has been procured, I have had it filled with the plate and most valuable portable articles belonging to the house; whether it will reach its destination; the Bank of Maryland, or fall into the hands of British soldiery, events must determine.

Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out it is done, and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping. And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it, by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!!

William Elwell painted Dolley Madison's portrait in February 1848. National Portrait Gallery.

I will leave the reader to search further for Mrs. Madison's attitudes toward her slaves, especially Paul Jennings, and to solve the puzzle of just who saved George Washington's White House portrait.

Much more information is available at the Dolley Madison Project of the University of Virginia . See here.

Dolley Madison's correspondence is now available at The Dolley Madison Digital Edition also sponsored by the University of Virginia. See here.