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A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons Hardcover – January 3, 2012
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“A detailed picture of the lives of Virgnia slaves and their interactions with their owners, each other, and the wider community.” ―Asbury Park Press
“Thanks to Elizabeth Dowling Taylor's enterprise and craftsmanship in rescuing and reanimating this significant and remarkable, but nearly forgotten, American personality, A Slave in the White House is a gift to the early history of the republic and the long story of black and white interdependence.” ―David Levering Lewis, author of District of Columbia: A Bicentennial History and a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of W.E.B. Du Bois
“[Paul Jennings's] remarkable life sheds new light on the central themes of American history during his lifetime and beyond. Taylor's sensitive reconstruction... yields fresh perspectives on... James and Dolley Madison... the African-American experience under slavery, the world of free blacks in Washington City during the late antebellum era, and the Civil War and its legacy. Scholars and general readers alike will not be able to put this remarkable book down.” ―Drew McCoy, author of The Last of the Fathers
“Elizabeth Dowling Taylor has presented us with the gift of a new American hero. With precision and compassion, Taylor deftly brings Paul Jennings out of the shadows of history. Writer, property-owner, freedom fighter, husband, and father--Jennings's life reveals the complicated humanity behind the designation "slave." This story will humble and inspire all who believe in the American Dream.” ―Catherine Allgor, Professor of History at the University of California at Riverside, UC Presidential Chair
“Taylor's careful reconstruction of the life of James Madison's slave valet reveals American history from a different angle. Rescuing George Washington's portrait from the British army, helping fellow slaves escape, earning his freedom from Dolley Madison with help from Daniel Webster, Paul Jennings led a life full of vivid episodes and famous personalities.” ―Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
“The life of Paul Jennings, a slave owned by US President James Madison and his wife, Dolly, throws fascinating light on both the struggles of a black man in 19th-century America and life in the early years of the young American republic.” ―The Christian Science Monitor
“Who was Paul Jennings? And who was "JBR," who recorded Jennings' reminiscences, first published in 1863? How did the account get into print? And were there any Jennings descendants who could shed light on their ancestor? In "A Slave in the White House," Taylor answers those questions, and many more. ...Taylor's book brightly illuminates slave life at Montpelier and the very different, but connected, world of free blacks in Washington that Jennings joined upon gaining his freedom.” ―The Free Lance-Star
“a history lesson many people don't know about” ―Greene County Record
“useful and informative” ―The Washington Post
“provides abundant insight, and cause for reflection into a time not so long ago when human beings were treated as property, even ones owned by presidents espousing the merits of liberty. ...an eyes-wide-open, extensively researched look at the politics of slavery, and the widely-held, deeply embedded belief among white America that black America was not its equal. ...frank, engaging and well-documented account of bondage in Washington, D.C. and the south at the nation's infancy.” ―The Culpeper Star-Exponent
“imaginative and thorough research, careful supposition and heavy contextual description. ...Taylor reminds us of the moral failures of the Founding Fathers, especially their unwillingness to accept the notion that black people should enjoy the benefits of freedom so eloquently expressed in the nation's founding documents. ...This is an important story of human struggle, determination and triumph.” ―Kirkus in Dallas Morning News
“You might think you know our nation's past, but this book may surprise you. If you're up for a great historical biography, in fact, "A Slave in the White House" will surely keep you in your seat.” ―Houston Style Magazine
“she describes some of the subtle and not-so-subtle methods that white slaveholders, even including the libertarian Madison, used to dehumanize their "property." In Jennings' case they did not succeed, and now his struggle for a life of freedom speaks eloquently across the years.” ―Seattle Times
“Even if you are not a lover of biographies and/or memoirs, please pick this one up. The author did an amazing job in researching this book with the help of Jennings descendants. It's a keeper.” ―Seattle Post-Intelligencer (from Blogcritics)
“Taylor, who has a Ph.D. from Berkeley and for many years was a historian at the Montpelier estate, balances this portrait with a scrupulous unearthing of the plantation's less-than-noble reality...Taylor leavens this morbid tale with Paul Jennings's remarkable story.” ―The Daily Beast
“What emerges is a portrait of a remarkably willful, ambitious, opportunistic, and in his own way well-connected American whose life came to embody what the Civil War historian Gabor Boritt has called the "right to rise." You could also call it the American dream.” ―Fortune
About the Author
Elizabeth Dowling Taylor received her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. Over a 22-year career in museum education and historical research, she was Director of Interpretation at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Director of Education at James Madison's Montpelier. Most recently a Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Taylor is now an independent scholar and lecturer. She lives in Barboursville, Virginia.
Annette Gordon-Reed, historian and legal scholar, has a triple appointment at Harvard University, where she is Professor at the Law School, History Department, and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. In 2009 she won the Pulitzer Prize in history for her book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.
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Does this book give an accurate portrayal of the lives of slaves in upper Virginia in the late 1700s and early 1800s? I'm not sure, but it's interesting to read about Jennings' courtship of a slave on a neighboring plantation, his "marriage" to her, and their family life -- limited by his absences in Washington with his owner -- that still produced a number of children. And, it also touches on why the plantation system was already economically unsustainable in northern Virginia at the time because of the toll growing tobacco took on the land.
It also reveals a lot about the lives and attitudes of whites toward slaves and slavery during this time. Dolley Madison, particularly, gets a black eye for not following her husband’s wish to free his slaves on his death. Instead, she sold them piecemeal because she needed the money. About the best that can be said for her is that she let Jennings buy his freedom, and at a reduced rate (his children were eventually freed, as well). On the other hand, there were people such as Daniel Webster, the U.S. senator from Massachusetts, who advanced Jennings the money to buy his freedom, and the whites involved with the “Pearl,” an aborted attempt to free several dozen slaves from their Washington owners.
The final chapters cover Jennings’ life as a free man, including his economic success buying and developing property and his employment by the federal government. It also covers his sons’ service in the Civil War, and ends with his descendants visiting the White House. In all, it’s a remarkable story of an American family of which we all should be proud.
I learned many new and very interesting facts about how slaveholding was actually practiced and how the slaves adopted to their situations.
And I discovered many unknown aspects of how freed slaves - or at least some exceptionally gifted ones like Jennings - managed their lives beyond slavery.
Sadly, there is little documentation available to reach closer to the emotions and intellectual rationalizations that swirled around these historic moments. But even so, this book provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on some very complicated relationships.