Title: A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons
Author: Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
No. of Pages: 336
“Paul Jennings was born into slavery on the plantation of James and Dolley Madison in Virginia, later becoming part of the Madison household staff at the White House. Once finally emancipated by Senator Daniel Webster later in life, he would give an aged and impoverished Dolley Madison, his former owner, money from his own pocket, write the first White House memoir, and see his sons fight with the Union Army in the Civil War. He died a free man in northwest Washington at 75. Based on correspondence, legal documents, and journal entries rarely seen before, this amazing portrait of the times reveals the mores and attitudes toward slavery of the nineteenth century, and sheds new light on famous characters such as James Madison, who believed the white and black populations could not coexist as equals; French General Lafayette who was appalled by this idea; Dolley Madison, who ruthlessly sold Paul after her husband’s death; and many other since forgotten slaves, abolitionists, and civil right activists.”
Thoughts: A Slave in the White House is not another diatribe against the evils of slavery. It existed, it sucked, it divided the country, and it left lasting scars on entire generations past, present, and future. Rather, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor’s focus is the extraordinary story of Paul Jennings, a man born into slavery to one of the most important Founding Fathers but who died a free man. Along the way, Jennings had close dealings with some of the most powerful people in the country. Ms. Taylor explores Jennings’ journey from slavery to freedom while taking a closer look at each of the political powers-that-be that held such sway over Jennings and his family.
In many ways, Paul Jennings was a privileged man. Yes, he was born into slavery and had minimal freedoms or choices throughout a majority of his lifetime, and there is nothing that can ever remedy that. However, through his role as personal valet and butler, he learned to read and write and was privy to a myriad of discussions among some of the most brilliant minds. He wore sumptuous clothes, and he traveled with the Madison family around the country. How many other people from this era, slave or free, could same the same? How many others, free or slaves, never learned to read, let alone write, and never stepped foot outside the town in which she or he was born? The fact of the matter is that even as a slave, Jennings was among the privileged few. Jennings’ story is extraordinary not only because of the many benefits he received as a slave that helped him obtain his freedom and become a productive member of society later in life but because of the people with whom he interacted and who helped him obtain his freedom.
The research in A Slave in the White House appears thorough and well-documented, although at times it does read like an advertisement for genealogical websites. Unfortunately though, Ms. Taylor fails to maintain the neutrality that is essential to biographical writing. While Jennings may have never spoken ill about the Madison family, especially Dolley, Ms. Taylor does not have the same qualms; in fact, her opinion of Dolley Madison is blatantly obvious. She makes her opinions known about Madison’s hypocrisy, about Dolley’s pretentiousness, and about Daniel Webster’s unwillingness to vocalize and champion his opinion about slavery. Along a similar vein, when documentation does not exist, Ms. Taylor inserts much of her own feelings and opinions. For example, when discussing Jennings’ frame of mind regarding his separation from his family, Ms. Taylor adds conjecture, assuming that Jennings felt a certain way even though there is nothing to prove her claim. This direct involvement into the narrative by the author is both disconcerting and disruptive, and it makes a reader question just how much of the narrative is actually true.
All negatives aside, A Slave in the White House is a fascinating inside look at an era that changed the face of the nation, at a subject that continues to divide the country, and at the most powerful and influential men and women the country has ever seen. It is an interesting read from a purely historical perspective; as a biography, it leaves a reader wanting. When Ms. Taylor uses Jennings’ own words, the story pops with authenticity. His is a viewpoint that is exclusive and rare, and he sheds new light onto such famous historical figures. Unfortunately, the story falters quite a bit when Ms. Taylor deviates from Jennings’ story. At these points, there is too much hypothesis on the part of Ms. Taylor, and the book becomes more of an editorial than a biography. Still, Jennings’ story is worth discovering and well worth the time it takes to overcome the novel’s deficiencies.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Palgrave Macmillan for my review copy!