Last updated: February 16, 2022
A slave in the service of Dolley and James Madison for 48 years, Paul Jennings has provided valuable insight into their character, as well as life for a slave in the White House. Some credit Jennings rather than Dolley Madison with saving the portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart from the burning White House in 1813, but perhaps Jennings’ most valuable contribution to history is his memoir, “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.” Although this document, published in a magazine in 1863 and again as a memoir in 1865, allows us to know much more about James Madison, little is known about Jennings himself.
Jennings was born into slavery on James Madison’s Virginia plantation, Montpelier, in 1799. He was the son of a female slave of mixed African and American Indian heritage, and English trader Benjamin Jennings. Although plantation life was undoubtedly hard, Jennings reflected that slaves were treated with respect, and that he “never knew [Madison] to strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it.” As a house slave and personal servant to such an important statesman as James Madison, Jennings was allowed a basic education. Unlike most slaves of the time, he was literate, educated in mathematics, and could even play the violin. In 1809, he accompanied the Madisons as they moved to the White House. Jennings spent his teenage years as a slave there, likely serving as a butler and serving on the family and their guests.
Jennings’ memoir reveals intimate details of life in the White House, especially on the evening of August 23, 1814, when an invading British army arrived in Washington, D.C. He reflects that “Mrs. Madison ordered dinner to be ready at 3, as usual.” As Jennings and the other slaves prepared the dinner, word arrived that the British had landed. Frenzied, Dolley Madison carried off only “the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected at every moment.” As for the Lansdowne portrait, Jennings attributes its salvation to door-keeper John Susé and the president’s gardener, Magraw.
After two terms of the presidency, the Madisons returned to Montpelier in 1817. Jennings was promoted to James Madison’s primary manservant, responsible for dressing and shaving James as well as accompanying him on trips, a position which he held until James Madison’s death in 1836.
In 1822, Jennings married Fanny Gordon, a slave on a neighboring plantation, and had five children together. Despite being married for 22 years, Jennings and his wife never spent more than a weekend together at a time. The same year as Fanny’s death, Dolley Madison sold the Montpelier estate. Jennings was retained as Mrs. Madison’s personal servant, however was sold to pay off debt in 1848. Shortly after, he was purchased and freed by Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster.
Jennings was freed in Washington, D.C., home to one of the largest populations of free people of color in the United States. Almost immediately, Jennings began working with white abolitionists to arrange one of the largest – albeit unsuccessful – slave revolts in the United States. In April 1848, 77 slaves were sent aboard the schooner Pearl to freedom in the north. Although obviously opposed to slavery, Jennings seemed to harbor no ill-will to his former owners. Jennings described James Madison as “one of the best men that ever lived,” and Dolley Madison as “a remarkably fine woman” in his memoir.
Through working in the Pension Office, a unit of the Department of the Interior, Jennings was able to save enough money to purchase a home in Washington. His colleague, John Brooks Russell, found his story of life as a slave in the White House fascinating, and first recorded the story for publication in the January 1863 issue of Historical Magazine and Notes and queries concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America. Brooklyn publisher George C. Beadle published the story as a memoir in 1865.