In the White House
Jennings was born into slavery in 1799 at Montpelier, the Madison plantation in Orange County. His mother was aand his father an English merchant named either Benjamin or William Jennings. When James Madison became president in 1809, ten-year-old Paul was chosen to be a footman in the president’s mansion, which, during the Madison administration, came to be known as the White House. He was one of about ten domestic servants—including a few other slaves from Montpelier, slaves hired in Washington, free blacks, and whites—all of whom reported to the steward, a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Sioussat.
In his Reminiscences, Jennings describes Washington, D.C., as “a dreary place” that was nevertheless animated by the political debates leading up to the War of 1812. “Colonel Monroe was always fierce for it [the war],” Jennings recalls, as were various other prominent figures, “all Southerners.” Jennings makes special mention of “strapping negroes” who, once war was declared, served well in the American forces, and he also narrates the events surrounding the evacuation of the White House on August 24, 1814. When word came that the British were approaching, Dolley Madison “caught up what silver she could … and then jumped into the chariot with her servant girl Sukey.” Jennings notes that stories of Madison cutting down the painting of George Washington are “totally false,” instead reporting that he, Sioussat, and a gardener retrieved Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 portrait. Modern conservation studies suggest that the portrait was never cut but that the frame was broken and the picture carried away as a stretched canvas.
Dolley Madison’s version of these events diverges somewhat from Jennings’s account. She, Margaret Bayard Smith, and others that on her way out of the White House she had instructed her slaves to rescue the portrait of Washington. In 1848, she : “I directed my servants in what manner to remove it from the wall, remaining with them until it was done.” Madison’s various and often vigorous defenses of her account were well publicized; as such, it seems unlikely that it was accidental that, in his account, Jennings downplayed her role in saving the painting.
After the British troops had reduced the White House and other public buildings in the city to blackened shells, the Madisons and their servants occupied a private residence nearby known as the Octagon. The Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, was signed on December 24, 1814, with word reaching the administration and staff on February 14. In his Reminiscences, Jennings writes that “we were crazy with joy.” The butler liberally dispensed wine to all, including the servants and slaves. “I played the President’s March on the violin,” Jennings writes, “[Sioussat] and some others were drunk for two days, and such another joyful time was never seen in Washington.”
James Madison’s Valet
In the spring of 1815, the Madison household moved into the Seven Buildings townhouse on the corner of Nineteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and stayed there until Madison’s second term ended in 1817. Although he does not mention it in his Reminiscences, evidence suggests that Jennings may have considered running away at this time. Madison’s nephewthe president that “your Servants Jim, Abram & Paul [were heard to say] that they never intended to return to Va: upon being asked what they meant to do, they replyed that their were Captains of Vessels who wanted Cooks & that they would enter into their service.”
In the end, Jennings not only returned to Montpelier, the home of his mother, but was also given the more prestigious position of Madison’s personal attendant, or valet. In this role, Jennings was responsible for Madison’s wardrobe and toilette, which included shaving him every other day. He also served as Madison’s travel companion, accompanying him on his sojourns to the University of Virginia, near Charlottesville, and to‘s nearby home, . In 1829, he accompanied Madison to the state constitutional convention in Richmond.
Jennings also may have been involved in helping slaves to escape. Thruston Hern, once owned by Thomas Jefferson, who gave him to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, ran away in 1817. “He is supposed to have gone to Washington,” Jefferson wrote in a letter to an associate of his in the capital, on June 14, 1817. Jefferson’s overseer, Edmund Bacon, reported that the runaway “went off with Mr. Madison’s servant,” who might have been Paul Jennings. According to Jennings family oral tradition, he used his literacy to forge passes and emancipation papers.
In 1822, Jennings married Fanny Gordon, owned by one of Madison’s neighbors, Jane Taylor Howard. He visited her once a week, on Sunday, and the couple had five children: Felix, Frances, John, Franklin, and William.
James Madison suffered from rheumatism, which crippled his body and often left him confined to his private room. As one of Madison’s chief caregivers, Jennings cut the former president’s food, lifted him into saltwater baths, and helped him walk. During this time, the bond between the two men apparently strengthened., a University of Virginia professor, visited Madison in his study and later wrote that he was impressed by the “trusty servant … seeming to identify himself with his master as to plans of management, and giving his opinions freely, though not offensively, as if conversing with a brother.”
Madison died on June 28, 1836, and Jennings was present. “He ceased breathing as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out,” Jennings writes in his Reminiscences. It is the only eyewitness account of the event.
After Madison’s death, Jennings became Dolley Madison’s butler and coachman. She spent part of each year in Washington, where she owned a home a block from the White House, an arrangement that further separated Jennings from his wife and children. During a visit back to Virginia in the spring of 1844, Jennings found his wife suffering from an unknown disease. In adated April 23, Jennings wrote, “I found faney vary porley but she says she is better then she was in the winter.” A few weeks later, Jennings wrote Madison’s slave Sukey: “I am looking every day to see the last of her.” Madison allowed Jennings to remain in Virginia during his wife’s illness; Fanny Gordon Jennings died on August 4, 1844.
On August 8, Madison sold Montpelier to Henry Moncure. Of the approximately 100 slaves, about half werethe plantation, about 25 sold to Moncure, and the remaining 25 retained by Madison and her son, Payne Todd. Jennings stayed with Madison, who hired him out to President James K. Polk in 1845. On July 8, Dolley Madison drafted two documents, one of which arranged for Jennings to purchase his freedom for $200, the other to sell him to Todd for a yet-to-be-determined price. Though saved in her papers, neither document appears to have been made official. On July 17, Madison that Polk had given Jennings leave to visit his family but that he had not returned.
Jennings had reason to expect his freedom from Madison, after her death if not sooner. In, dated February 1, 1841, or more than eight years before her death, she had written, “I give to my Mulatto man Paul his freedom,” the only slave so treated. It is not clear whether, in the meantime, Madison allowed Jennings to work to raise money to purchase his freedom. attributed to William L. Chaplin written under a pseudonym that appeared in the abolitionist newspaper the Albany Patriot in 1848 suggest that she did not. After Madison brought Jennings to Washington, D.C., the correspondent wrote, “he worked a year and a half or two years on wages, which she took to the last red cent, leaving him to get his clothes by presents, night-work, or as he might.” Worried he might be sold, Jennings, according to the correspondent, “induced a distinguished Northern Senator to advance for him the purchase-money, and give him time to work it out.”
In September 1846, a Washington insurance agent named Pollard Webb paid Madison $200 for Jennings. In March 1847, Daniel Webster, an antislavery senator from Massachusetts, paid Webb $120 for Jennings. It is probable that Webster had arranged for the first purchase. During the intervening six months, Jennings may have worked to earn $80, with Webster then paying Webb the balance. On March 19, 1847, Webster put the arrangement in writing: “I have paid $120 for the freedom of Paul Jennings—He agrees to work out the same, at 8 dollars a month, to be furnished with board, clothes & washing—[…] His freedom papers I gave to him; they are recorded in this District.” Now a free man, Jennings worked as a dining-room servant for Webster until he had reimbursed the senator for his purchase price. He lived with three other free blacks near the White House.
The Pearl Incident
In 1848, Daniel Bell, a free black man living in Washington, inspired anmission designed to free his enslaved wife and children, who were in danger of being sold. With the help of free blacks and white antislavery activists, the plan expanded to include seventy-seven people. Jennings’s involvement may have come through a connection with William Chaplin, a member of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society and the Washington correspondent for the Albany Patriot, which, at the time of the escape-planning, printed his two reports about Jennings. Those reports included the story of Ellen Stewart (referred to by the paper as Helen), a fifteen-year-old enslaved girl owned by Dolley Madison who ran away rather than be sold. (Her mother was the enslaved woman Sukey.) Jennings likely assisted her in her original flight and now included her among the thirty-eight men, twenty-six women, and thirteen children who hid belowdecks on the schooner Pearl on April 15, 1848.
Setting sail that night at ten o’clock, the Pearl, commanded by the white captain Daniel Drayton, encountered too-light winds on the Potomac River. And then, when the schooner finally reached the Chesapeake, the waters were too rough to enter the bay. In Washington, meanwhile, a black man named Judson Diggs, who may have held a grudge against one of the escapees, betrayed the plot. A posse of thirty men boarded the Pearl at two o’clock on the morning of April 17; the schooner was towed back to the capital, and the slaves and the three white crew members were detained. One crew member was released, while Drayton and Edward Sayres were tried, convicted, and sentenced to jail on seventy-seven counts of aiding in the escape of slaves.
Because Drayton declined to reveal the names of the plot’s other conspirators, Jennings’s role was never known to authorities. Ellen Stewart, with a number of the other captured slaves, was sold to a slave trader in Baltimore, Maryland. With the help of various abolitionists, money was raised and her freedom purchased. Dolley Madison sold Ellen’s mother, Sukey, sometime after Ellen first escaped; her fate is unknown.
On June 12, 1849, Jennings married Desdemona Brooks, a free black woman, in Alexandria County. (Because Brooks’s mother had been white, she.) Jennings continued to work for Daniel Webster, in Washington and at his Massachusetts farm, until 1851, when the senator issued his former servant (“honest, faithful & sober”) that Jennings presented to acquire a job at the pension office in the Department of the Interior. In 1862 he met a new clerk at the office named John Brooks Russell. A native of Massachusetts, Russell was an amateur historian and antiquarian who regularly contributed to the Historical Magazine and Notes and Queries Concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America. He assisted Jennings in writing the story of his time in the Madison White House, and then submitted it to the magazine. It appeared in January 1863 under the title “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.” Russell identified himself only as “JBR” and reported that the narrative represented the history Jennings had shared with him “in almost his own words.”
In its April 1865 issue, the magazine featured an auction of historical objects that “belonged to the estate of the late Edward M. Thomas, a colored man.” Among these was the document written by Daniel Webster granting Jennings his freedom, likely having been given or sold to Thomas by Jennings. His interest in Jennings piqued, the magazine’s editor, John Gilmary Shea, ordered seventy-five copies of Jennings’s narrative to be privately printed, each one containing an inlaid facsimile of the Webster document. Earlier in the year, Shea had issued a reprint of Bladensburg Races, a satirical poem about the Battle of Bladensburg, the British victory that led to the burning of Washington, D.C. (The battle was sometimes referred to as the “Bladensburg Races” because of fleeing American troops.) Shea labeled Jennings’s Reminiscences as “Bladensburg Series, Number Two.”
Including a two-paragraph preface by Russell, the account numbers fewer than 3,000 words, but it has proven to be an important source for historians on life inside the White House during the Madison administration. The White House Historical Association has described it as “the first memoir about the White House by one who had lived there.”
In the 1850s Jennings reconnected with his four surviving children in Washington. He purchased two small wood-frame houses on L Street near Eighteenth Street in the northwest quadrant of the city for $1,000 each. He lived at 1804 L Street with his second wife and younger children, while his daughter Frances and her two sons lived next door. His sons John, Franklin, and William joined Union forces during the(1861–1865), all of them surviving. At some point, Jennings’s second wife, Desdemona, died. He prepared his will on September 13, 1870, referring to a wife-to-be. He married Amelia Dorsey, of Maryland, the next day at John Wesley A. M. E. Zion Church, in Washington. Jennings died at his home on May 20, 1874.
- A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison (1865)