It was the best seat in the house. From where you were, you could see it all: every footstep, gesture, movement, and every player there. Looks of joy, grimaces, and effort, you saw them all.
Yep, you had the best seat in the house, which is good because you paid dearly for it.
Paul Jennings paid dearly for his seat in history, too, as you’ll see in the new book “A Slave in the White House” by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. Paul, in fact, paid for his vantage point with most of his life.
When Paul Jennings was born in late 1799, it might’ve seemed that his future was already set: at a time when slavery was matrilineal, Jennings, the son of a mixed-race enslaved mother and a White father, automatically inherited his mother’s status.
Because she was a house slave on the plantation owned by Virginia legislator (and later President) James Madison, tradition held that little Paul would work in the house, too. For curious, quick-to-learn young Jennings, that meant opportunity to learn to read and write, and to observe. Perhaps because of that, when James Madison became president and moved to Washington, he took 10-year-old Jennings along.
Madison was an “exceptional” statesman but a “garden-variety” slaveholder. Though he paid a certain amount of lip-service to anti-slavery movements, he followed established practices for slave’s living conditions and family situations. That meant that, when Jennings was of marrying age and took a wife, his bondage kept him from his family—sometimes, for months at a time.
One can almost imagine Paul Jennings “gnawing on the possibility of escape,” but he stayed with the Madisons, traveling between Washington and the plantation in Virginia. He embraced a leadership role in the household, made valuable contacts in Washington, and managed to father five children.
James Madison had indicated in his will that Paul Jennings was to be freed upon Madison’s death, a wish about which Jennings knew.
Did you ever finish a book with a dozen questions still swirling through your head? As I read “A Slave in the White House,” I often wondered what, for instance, Paul Jennings might have thought about a Black president?
Like most of us, author-historian Taylor can only speculate, since slaves like Jennings had to keep such notions to themselves. Still, Taylor gives her readers a general idea of the character of the man, enough for us to make inferences. To do that, she unearthed documents, oral histories, and photographs that make Paul Jennings’ story one that’s both lively and bitter. She also includes the full text of the book that Jennings wrote about his White House days, so we can see history for ourselves.
(“A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons” by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, c.2012, Palgrave Macmillan, $28/$32 Canada, 336 pages.)