President’s Day falling in the middle of Black History Month gives us reason to ask for definitive answers to some questions that may get swept under the rug. While it is wonderful to acknowledge the greatness of our Presidents, we cannot pretend that slavery wasn’t a part of our past in America. It’s hard to ignore the ugly truth that many of our nation’s leaders were proud slave-owners. Eight of our early leaders did, in fact, own slaves.
In her new book, ‘A Slave In The White House’, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor details the lives of two such Presidents, Thomas Jefferson (who’s history as a slave-owner AND father of many offspring with said slaves is well documented) and James Madison.
She writes in the Huffintgton Post:
“Jefferson and Madison owned over a hundred enslaved people at their Virginia plantations and took several slaves with them to the White House. Running the domestic side of the executive mansion was a private undertaking then, and the third and fourth president each assembled a household staff, headed by a French steward, of about ten: white and free black workers, slaves hired in the capital, as well as slaves from their plantation.
One enslaved man, John Freeman, served as a White House footman during both Jefferson’s and Madison’s administrations. Jefferson purchased Freeman in 1804 with the understanding, set by his former master, that he was to be freed in sixteen years. In 1809, the year Madison’s first term began, the third president sold Freeman to his successor for $231.81 (calculated to the penny based on Freeman’s remaining time as a slave). This is the only recorded instance of the sale of human property between these two presidents, though Jefferson also sold a woman, Thenia Hemings, and her five young daughters, to another of our slave-owning presidents, James Monroe.
Madison acknowledged that slavery was an evil of great magnitude, a “moral, social and economical” failure. Jefferson called it an “abominable crime” and a “moral depravity” and allowed that should a violent contest between slaves and slave owners transpire, there was no doubt which side God would be on.
Both men supported gradual emancipation if something could be done with the free blacks. It was the concept of colonization, the transport of free blacks to Africa that offered Madison relief from his despair over slavery. Maybe all slaves could be freed, he wrote, if the “double operation”–emancipation followed by colonization–was put in place.
Thus in the end it was not slavery but race–racism–that was the sticking point. Jefferson and Madison thought that people of color should enjoy the same individual rights as white citizens. But not here. They averred that black and white could never live harmoniously in America together.
Two centuries later (centuries!) we are still working on proving them wrong in their prediction, still working on realizing a truly pluralistic society that all Americans honor.”
In regards to this Presidents Jefferson and Madison’s feeling as to whether we can all live together harmoniously in America, I would like to quote the current President…
“Yes, we can.”
…but it’s gonna take work and we have to understand where we have been before this.