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Paul Jennings (1799 – 1874) was a personal servant, as a young slave, to President James Madison during and after his White House years. After buying his freedom in 1845 from Daniel Webster, Jennings is noted for publishing in 1865 the first White House memoir. His book was A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison, described as "a singular document in the history of slavery and the early American republic."
Living in Washington, DC from 1837 on, Jennings made many useful connections and was aided by the northern Senator Daniel Webster in gaining freedom. In the 1850s, Jennings traveled to Virginia, where he tracked down his children, who had grown up on a neighboring plantation with his late wife Fanny, also a slave. His relatives on his mother's side were sold by the widow Dolley Madison with Montpelier in 1844. His three sons joined the Union cause during the American Civil War. In 2009 his descendants were honored at Montpelier following a lecture on Jennings. They were also invited to a private viewing at the White House of the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, which Jennings helped save during the War of 1812 and the British burning of the Capitol.
Jennings was born into slavery at Montpelier in 1799; his mother, who was African-Native American, was held by the Madisons. She told the boy his father was Benjamin Jennings, an English trader. The mixed-race slave as a child was a companion to Dolley's son Payne Todd. He began to serve James Madison as his footman and later was trained as his "body servant". At the age of 10, Jennings accompanied Madison and his family to the White House after the statesman's election as president. In his 1865 memoir, he noted that the East Room was yet unfinished from the first construction, most of the Washington streets were unpaved, and the city was "a dreary place" in those years.
In 1814 during the Burning of Washington, as British troops were approaching the White House, Jennings at age 15, with two other men, reportedly helped save the noted Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington known as the Lansdowne portrait. Other White House slaves helped save such valuables as silver. (The portrait was returned to the White House, where it is the only surviving item from before the War of 1812.) Legend has it that he assisted First Lady Dolley Madison in this effort. In his memoir, Jennings wrote that a French cook and one other person did the physical work of taking down the painting.:12–13
After the president ended his second term, the Madisons returned to Montpelier in 1817, bringing Jennings with them. He was 18 years old and continued to serve Madison as his valet for the rest of the president's life. Jennings married Fanny, a slave held on another plantation, and they had five children, who lived with their mother. Jennings was with Madison when he died in 1836.:18–19
In 1837, the widow Dolley Madison took Jennings with her when she returned to Washington, DC to live in the winter seasons. He was forced to leave his family behind but was permitted to visit them occasionally. In 1841, she wrote her will, which would free Jennings after her death, the only slave whom she freed in her will. In Washington as an adult, Jennings saw a much broader community. Among its many free blacks at the time were descendants of slaves of the former presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.
Struggling financially, in 1844 Dolley Madison sold Montpelier and all its property, including its slaves, to raise money to live on. That year Fanny, Jennings' wife, died in Virginia. The following year, Dolley Madison hired out Jennings to President James Polk in Washington. Often slaves who were hired out got to keep a portion of their earnings, but she kept it all, as she was impoverished.
Fearing for his future, Jennings tried to arrange a purchase price with Madison, but she sold him to an insurance agent for $200. Quickly, the senator Daniel Webster intervened to buy him from the new owner for $120 and gave Jennings his freedom, for which he paid the senator in work. He entered the large free black community of Washington, which outnumbered slaves by three to one at the time.
In 1848, Jennings helped plan a mass escape of 77 slaves from Washington, DC on the schooner Pearl. It was the largest slave escape attempt in US history. In an effort funded by white abolitionists William L. Chaplin and Gerrit Smith, the free black community of Washington enlarged the escape, gathering tens of slaves willing to risk the 225-mile sailing journey to freedom in the North.
The slaves were captured and returned to Washington after having been delayed by poor winds. Their owners quickly sold them to traders, and most were sold again in the Deep South. The freedom of some slaves, including the two Edmonson sisters, was purchased by families and friends. The Edmonsons were sponsored to go to school in New York state and later spoke at abolitionist lectures. The two white captains, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres, owner and pilot of the schooner Pearl, were convicted on multiple counts of aiding a slave escape and illegally transporting slaves. They served four years in jail before being pardoned by President Millard Fillmore.
The following year, Jennings married again, to Desdemona Brooks, a free mulatto whose mother was white (according to slave law, children took the status of their mother). She lived in Alexandria, Virginia.
Jennings returned to Virginia in the 1850s as a free man, and was able to reunite with family he had been forced to leave years before. His three sons joined the Union cause during the American Civil War after escaping and joining Union lines. John, Franklin, William and daughter Mary later joined him in Washington and the area.
After the war, Jennings worked at the newly established Pension Bureau, part of the Department of the Interior, to handle claims of veterans and soldiers' families. He made the acquaintance of John Brooks Russell, an antiquarian. Fascinated by Jennings' story of his years with Madison, Russell wrote it down and published it for him in January 1863 in The Historical Magazine and Notes and Queries Concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America, where Russell had been a contributor. He helped Jennings gain publication of his memoir as a book in 1865. It is considered the first White House memoir.
A free man, Jennings bought a lot and built a house at 1804 L Street, NW. He had reunited with his children, and his son John lived with him. His daughter Mary lived next door with her two children. His sons Franklin and William also lived in the area.
After Desdemona's death, Jennings married a third time in 1870, to Amelia Dorsey. He died in northwest Washington, D.C. at the age of 75 in 1874, leaving his family the house and property in northwest Washington.