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Reading 2: Slavery at Montpelier
Before departing for Philadelphia in November 1790, James Madison wrote instructions for Montpelier’s overseer and slaves that included many details about the proper amount of "Negroe" food rations, as well as the directions to provide shelter for the cattle and to "fallow with the large plows all the ground for oats & Corn." He concluded his instructions to his overseer with the following instruction: "To treat the Negroes with all the humanity & kindness consistent with their necessary subordination and work."1
Upon visiting then-Secretary of State Madison at Montpelier in 1807, Sir Augustus John Foster, the British minister, recorded these observations in his journal:
The Negro habitations are separate from the dwelling house both here and all over Virginia, and they form a kind of village as each Negro family would like, if they were allowed it, to live in a house by themselves. When at a distance from any town it is necessary they should be able to do all kind of handiwork; and accordingly, at Montpellier [sic] I found a forge, a turner’s shop, a carpenter and wheelwright. All articles too that are wanted for farming or the use of the house were made on the spot, and I saw a very well constructed wagon that had just been completed.2Margaret Bayard Smith’s August 4, 1809, letter details her conversation with Nany, one of the Madisons’ domestic slaves:
When the servant appeared with candles to show me my room, she insisted on going up stairs with me, assisted me to undress and chatted till I got into bed. How unassuming, how kind is this woman. How can any human being be her enemy? Truly in her there is to be found no gall, but the pure milk of human kindness. If I may say so, the maid was like the mistress [Dolley Madison]; she was very attentive all the time I was there, seeming as if she could not do enough, and was very talkative. As her mistress left the room, ‘You have a good mistress Nany,’ said I, ‘Yes,’ answered the affectionate creature with warmth, ‘the best I believe in the world--I am sure I would not change her for any mistress in the whole country.’3
In 1824 during General Marquis de Lafayette’s much heralded trip through America, he and his secretary, Auguste Levasseur, spent four days at Montpelier. Levasseur recorded these impressions in his journal:
Mr. Madison is now seventy-four years of age; but his body, which has been but little impaired, contains a mind still young, and filled with a kind sensibility....
I will not enter into particulars concerning the management of Mr. Madison’s plantation: it is exactly what might be expected from a man distinguished by good taste and love of method, but unable to employ other labourers than slaves; who, whatever may be their gratitude for the good treatment of their master, must always prefer their own present ease to the increase of his wealth.
The four days we spent at Mr. Madison’s were agreeably divided between walks about his fine estate, and the still more engaging conversations that we enjoyed in the evenings, on the great interests of America, which are known to be so dear to Lafayette. The society [guests] which Madison assembled [on this occasion] at Montpellier [sic] was...com-posed of neighbouring [sic] planters, who appeared to me, in general, at least as intimately acquainted with the great political questions of their country, as those of agriculture. General Lafayette, who, while he appreciates the unfortunate position of slaveholders in the United States, and cannot overlook the greater part of the obstacles which oppose an immediate emancipation of the blacks, still never fails to take advantage of an opportunity to defend the right which all men, without exception, have to liberty, introduced the question of slavery among the friends of Mr. Madison. It was approached and discussed by them with frankness, and in such a manner as to confirm the opinion I had before formed of the noble sentiments of the greater part of the Virginians, on that deplorable subject. It seems to me that slavery cannot subsist much longer in Virginia: for the principle is condemned by all enlightened men; and when public opinion condemns a principle, its consequences cannot long continue.4
Mary Cutts, Dolley Madison’s niece, recalled a description of slave life at Montpelier about 1824:
General [Marquis] de La Fayette when he visited Montpelier in 1825 , said one of the most interesting sights he had witnessed in America was when he visited the log cabin of Granny Milly, 104 years of age, whose daughter and granddaughter, the youngest nearly 70 were all at rest, retired from their labors and living happily together; their patch of ground cultivated for them, their food and raiment supplied by "Mass Jimmy and Miss Dolley." None but an eye witness can know of the peace and ease of these sable sons of toil, to retire with health and not care for the morrow and surrounded by their progeny, on these plantations which remain in the same family over a century! Death of the master occasionally, but only occasionally, changes the scene for the young! but rare, indeed, is the instance of a Virginian, purchasing the estate, objecting to the incumbrance of superannuated slaves, who love their homes, from which, in many cases they have never been five miles. No, they stay with their indulgences, happy, because contented, until death leaves the log cabin free for other occupants! That region of Virginia is particularly healthful, and seemed to be very beneficial to the native Africans, of whom, there were several over one hundred years of age on the plantation.5
The young traveler from Massachusetts, George C. Shattuck, revealed more about Madison in this 1835 letter to his father, a doctor:
[Madison] is very cheerful, sprightly, much interested in what is going on in the world. He inquired a good deal about the factories and the operatives. He thinks that Virginia can employ her slave labor in this way with great profit, and that the Northern states will not be able to manufacture so cheaply as labor is so high with them. He also inquired about Washington and seemed to take great interest in the proceedings of congress.6
Paul Jennings was born a slave at Montpelier in 1799 and later became Madison’s "body servant" (personal slave) until Madison’s death. He shared his recollections of the Madisons:
Mrs. Madison was a remarkably fine woman. She was beloved by every body in Washington, white and colored....
Mr. Madison, I think, was one of the best men that ever lived. I never saw him in a passion, and never knew him to strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it. Whenever any slaves were reported to him as stealing or ‘cutting up’ badly, he would send for them and admonish them privately, and never mortify them by doing it before others. They generally served him very faithfully.7
After Madison’s death, Daniel Webster purchased Paul Jennings’ freedom. Jennings was grateful and soon advocated freedom for all his people. He helped to plan a large-scale escape of slaves from Washington, D.C. In an 1848 letter he explained to Senator Webster why he felt the need to act in such a way:
A deep desire to be of help to my poor people has determined me to take a decided step in that direction. My only regret is that I shall appear ungrateful, in thus leaving with so little ceremony, one who has been uniformly kind and considerate and has rendered each moment of service a benefaction as well as pleasure. From the daily contact with your great personality which it has been mine to enjoy, has been imbibed a respect for moral obligations and the claims of duty. Both of these draw me towards the path I have chosen.
Questions for Reading 2
1. How did Sir Augustus John Foster describe the slave quarters? What different kinds of labor did the slaves provide? Why?
2. What was Nany’s job as detailed by Margaret Smith? How did Smith describe her? If Nany had recorded her description of this exchange, how might it have been similar to or different from Smith’s recollection? Why do you think primary source documentation by and about slaves is scant? How might this have had an impact on how slavery was interpreted?
3. What were Auguste Levasseur’s views on slavery? How did he describe Lafayette’s views? Why did he believe slavery would not subsist much longer in Virginia?
4. What observations did Mary Cutts make about the lives of slaves? How did these observations influence her perspective? How might Lafayette’s perspective have been influenced by his observations of Granny Milly’s life? What might Milly have said about her life? Why?
5. What were Madison’s words (ideas) and actions regarding slavery?
6. How did Paul Jennings regard his master and mistress? From what you know of his later life, what were his beliefs and behaviors regarding slavery? Were these attitudes and actions inconsistent? Why or why not?
1Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990), 374, 703.