A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison
Source:White House History: A journal published occasionally by the
White House Historical Association (740 Jackson Place N.W.,
Washington, D.C. 20506), Volume 1, Number 1, 1983, pp. 46-51
A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison
by Paul Jennings
[Editor's note: This is a reprint in its entirety of the 1865
memoir of Paul Jennings, a former slave, and the preface that
originally accompanied it. A commentary follows.]
Preface. Among the laborers at the Department of the Interior is
an intelligent colored man, Paul Jennings, who was born a slave
on President Madison's estate, in Montpelier, Va., in 1799. His
reputed father was Benj. Jennings, an English trader there; his
mother, a slave of Mr. Madison, and the granddaughter of an
Indian. Paul was a "body servant" of Mr. Madison, till his
death, and afterwards of Daniel Webster, having purchased his
freedom of Mrs. Madison. His character for sobriety, truth, and
fidelity, is unquestioned; and as he was a daily witness of
interesting events, I have thought some of his recollections were
worth writing down in almost his own language.
On the 10th of January, 1865, at a curious sale of books,
coins and autographs belonging to Edward M. Thomas, a colored
man, for many years Messenger to the House of Representatives,
was sold, among other curious lots, an autograph of Daniel
Webster, containing these words: "I have paid $120 for the
freedom of Paul Jennings; he agrees to work out the same at $8
per month, to be furnished with board, clothes, washing," &c.
About ten years before Mr. Madison was President, he and
Colonel Monroe were rival candidates for the Legislature. Mr.
Madison was anxious to be elected, and sent his chariot to bring
up a Scotchman to the polls, who lived in the neighborhood. But
when brought up, he cried out: "Put me down for Colonel Monroe,
for he was the first man that took me by the hand in this
country." Colonel Monroe was elected, and his friends joked Mr.
Madison pretty hard about his Scotch friend, and I have heard Mr.
Madison and Colonel Monroe have many a hearty laugh over the
subject, for years after.
When Mr. Madison was chosen President, we came on and moved
into the White House; the east room was not finished, and
Pennsylvania Avenue was not paved, but was always in an awful
condition from either mud or dust. The city was a dreary place.
Mr. Robert Smith was then Secretary of State, but as he and
Mr. Madison could not agree, he was removed, and Colonel Monroe
appointed to his place. Dr. Eustis was Secretary of War --
rather a rough, blustering man; Mr. Gallatin, a tip-top man, was
Secretary of the Treasury; and Mr. Hamilton, of South Carolina, a
pleasant gentleman, who thought Mr. Madison could do nothing
wrong, and who always concurred in every thing he said, was
Secretary of the Navy.
Before the war of 1812 was declared, there were frequent
consultations at the White House as to the expediency of doing
it. Colonel Monroe was always fierce for it, so were Messrs.
Lowndes, Giles, Poydrass, and Pope -- all Southerners; all his
Secretaries were likewise in favor of it.
Soon after war was declared, Mr. Madison made his regular
summer visit to his farm in Virginia. We had not been there long
before an express reached us one evening, informing Mr. M. of
Gen. Hull's surrender. He was astounded at the news, and started
back to Washington the next morning.
After the war had been going on for a couple of years, the
people of Washington began to be alarmed for the safety of the
city, as the British held Chesapeake Bay with a powerful fleet
and army. Every thing seemed to be left to General Armstrong,
then Secretary of war, who ridiculed the idea that there was any
danger. But, in August, 1814, the enemy had got so near, there
could be no doubt of their intentions. Great alarm existed, and
some feeble preparations for defense were made. Com. Barney's
flotilla was stripped of men, who were placed in battery, at
Bladensburg, where they fought splendidly. A large part of his
men were tall, strapping negroes, mixed with white sailors and
marines. Mr. Madison reviewed them just before the fight, and
asked Com. Barney if his "negroes would not run on the approach
of the British?" "No sir," said Barney, "they don't know how to
run; they will die by their guns first." They fought till a
large part of them were killed or wounded; and Barney himself
wounded and taken prisoner. One or two of these negroes are
still living here.
Well, on the 24th of August, sure enough, the British
reached Bladensburg, and the fight began between 11 and 12. Even
that very morning General Armstrong assured Mrs. Madison there
was no danger. The President, with General Armstrong, General
Winder, Colonel Monroe, Richard Rush, Mr. Graham, Tench Ringgold,
and Mr. Duvall, rode out on horseback to Bladensburg to see how
things looked. Mrs. Madison ordered dinner to be ready at 3, as
usual; I set the table myself, and brought up the ale, cider, and
wine, and placed them in the coolers, as all the Cabinet and
several military gentlemen and strangers were expected. While
waiting, at just about 3, as Sukey, the house-servant was lolling
out of a chamber window, James Smith, a free colored man who had
accompanied Mr. Madison to Bladensburg, gallopped up to the
house, waving his hat, and cried out, "Clear out, clear out!
General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!" All then was
confusion. Mrs. Madison ordered her carriage, and passing
through the dining-room, caught up what silver she could crowd
into her old-fashioned reticule, and then jumped into the chariot
with her servant girl Sukey, and Daniel Carroll, who took charge
of them; Jo. Bolin drove them over to Georgetown Heights; the
British were expected in a few minutes. Mr. Cutts, her brother-
in-law, sent me to a stable on 14th street, for his carriage.
People were running in every direction. John Freeman (the
colored butler) drove off in the coachee with his wife, child,
and servant; also a feather bed lashed on behind the coachee,
which was all the furniture saved, except part of the silver and
the portrait of Washington (of which I will tell you by-and-by).
I will here mention that although the British were expected
every minute, they did not arrive for some hours; in the mean
time, a rabble, taking advantage of the confusion, ran all over
the White House, and stole lots of silver and whatever they could
lay their hands on.
About sundown I walked over to the Georgetown ferry, and
found the President and all hands (the gentlemen named before,
who acted as a sort of body-guard for him) waiting for the boat.
It soon returned, and we all crossed over, and passed up the road
about a mile; they then left us servants to wander about. In a
short time several wagons from Bladensburg, drawn by Barney's
artillery horses, passed up the road, having crossed the Long
Bridge before it was set on fire. As we were cutting up some
planks a white wagoner ordered us away, and told his boy Tommy to
reach out his gun, and he would shoot us. I told him "he had
better have used it at Bladensburg." Just then we came up with
Mr. Madison and his friends, who had been wandering about for
some hours, consulting what to do. I walked on to a Methodist
minister's, and in the evening, while he was at prayer, I heard a
tremendous explosion, and, rushing out, saw that the public
buildings, navy yard, ropewalks, &c., were on fire.
Mrs. Madison slept that night at Mrs. Love's, two or three
miles over the river. After leaving that place she called in at
a house, and went up stairs. The lady of the house learning who
she was, became furious, and went to the stairs and screamed out,
"Miss Madison! if that's you, come down and go out! Your husband
has got mine out fighting, and d___ you, you shan't stay in my
house; so get out!" Mrs. Madison complied, and went to Mrs.
Minor's, a few miles further, where she stayed a day or two, and
then returned to Washington, where she found Mr. Madison at her
brother-in-law's, Richard Cutts, on F street. All the facts
about Mrs. M. I learned from her servant Sukey. We moved into
the house of Colonel John B. Taylor [Tayloe], corner of 18th
street and New York Avenue, where we lived till the news of peace
In two or three weeks after we returned, Congress met in
extra session, at Blodgett's old shell of a house on 7th street
(where the General Post-office now stands). It was three stories
high, and had been used for a theatre, a tavern, an Irish
boarding house, &c.; but both Houses of Congress managed to get
along in it very well, notwithstanding it had to accommodate the
Patent-office, City and General Post-office, committee-rooms, and
what was left of the Congressional Library, at the same time.
Things are very different now.
The next summer, Mr. John Law, a large property-holder about
the Capitol, fearing it would not be rebuilt, got up a
subscription and built a large brick building (now called the Old
Capitol, where the secesh prisoners are confined), and offered it
to Congress for their use, till the Capitol could be rebuilt.
This coaxed them back, though strong efforts were made to remove
the seat of government north; but the southern members kept it
It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison
escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the
large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there),
and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for
doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All
she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British
were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every
moment. John Suse' [Jean-Pierre Sioussat] ( a Frenchman, then
door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President's
gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some
large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily
got hold of. When the British did arrive, they ate up the very
dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had prepared for the
When the news of peace arrived, we were crazy with joy.
Miss Sally Coles, a cousin of Mrs. Madison, and afterwards wife
of Andrew Stevenson, since minister to England, came to the head
of the stairs, crying out, "Peace! peace!" and told John Freeman
(the butler) to serve out wine liberally to the servants and
others. I played the President's March on the violin, John Suse'
and some others were drunk for two days, and such another joyful
time was never seen in Washington. Mr. Madison and all his
Cabinet were as pleased as any, but did not show their joy in
Mrs. Madison was a remarkably fine woman. She was beloved
by every body in Washington, white and colored. Whenever
soldiers marched by, during the war, she always sent out and
invited them in to take wine and refreshments, giving them
liberally of the best in the house. Madeira wine was better in
those days than now, and more freely drank. In the last days of
her life, before Congress purchased her husband's papers, she was
in a state of absolute poverty, and I think sometimes suffered
for the necessaries of life. While I was a servant to Mr.
Webster, he often sent me to her with a market-basket full of
provisions, and told me whenever I saw anything in the house that
I thought she was in need of, to take it to her. I often did
this, and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket,
though I had years before bought my freedom of her.
Mr. Madison, I think, was one of the best men that ever
lived. I never saw him in a passion, and never knew him to
strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would
he allow an overseer to do it. Whenever any slaves were reported
to him as stealing or "cutting up" badly, he would send for them
and admonish them privately, and never mortify them by doing it
before others. They generally served him very faithfully. He
was temperate in his habits. I don't think he drank a quart of
brandy in his whole life. He ate light breakfasts and no
suppers, but rather a hearty dinner, with which he took
invariably but one glass of wine. When he had hard drinkers at
his table, who had put away his choice Madeira pretty freely, in
response to their numerous toasts, he would just touch the glass
to his lips, or dilute it with water, as they pushed about the
decanters. For the last fifteen years of his life he drank no
wine at all.
After he retired from the presidency, he amused himself
chiefly on his farm. At the election for members of the Virginia
Legislature, in 1829 or '30, just after General Jackson's
accession, he voted for James Barbour, who had been a strong
Adams man. He also presided, I think, over the Convention for
amending the Constitution, in 1832.
After the news of peace, and of General Jackson's victory at
New Orleans, which reached here about the same time, there were
great illuminations. We moved into the Seven Buildings, corner
of 19th street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and while there, General
Jackson came on with his wife, to whom numerous dinner-parties
and levees were given. Mr. Madison also held levees every
Wednesday evening, at which wine, punch, coffee, ice-cream, &c.,
were liberally served, unlike the present custom.
While Mr. Jefferson was President, he and Mr. Madison (then
his Secretary of State) were extremely intimate; in fact, two
brothers could not have been more so. Mr. Jefferson always
stopped over night at Mr. Madison's, in going and returning from
I have heard Mr. Madison say, that when he went to school,
he cut his own wood for exercise. He often did it also when at
his farm in Virginia. He was very neat, but never extravagant,
in his clothes. He always dressed wholly in black -- coat,
breeches, and silk stockings, with buckles in his shoes and
breeches. He never had but one suit at a time. He had some poor
relatives that he had to help, and wished to set them an example
of economy in the matter of dress. He was very fond of horses,
and an excellent judge of them, and no jockey ever cheated him.
He never had less than seven horses in his Washington stables
He often told the story, that one day riding home from court
with old Tom Barbour (father of Governor Barbour), they met a
colored man, who took off his hat. Mr. M. raised his, to the
surprise of old Tom; to whom Mr. M. replied, "I never allow a
negro to excel me in politeness." Though a similar story is told
of General Washington, I have often heard this, as above, from
Mr. Madison's own lips.
After Mr. Madison retired from the presidency, in 1817, he
invariably made a visit twice a year to Mr. Jefferson --
sometimes stopping two or three weeks -- till Mr. Jefferson's
death, in 1826.
I was always with Mr. Madison till he died, and shaved him
every other day for sixteen years. For six months before his
death, he was unable to walk, and spent most of his time reclined
on a couch; but his mind was bright, and with his numerous
visitors he talked with as much animation and strength of voice
as I ever heard him in his best days. I was present when he
died. That morning Sukey brought him his breakfast, as usual.
He could not swallow. His niece, Mrs. Willis, said, "What is the
matter, Uncle Jeames?" "Nothing more than a change of *mind*, my
dear." His head instantly dropped, and he ceased breathing as
quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out. He was about eighty-
four years old, and was followed to the grave by an immense
procession of white and colored people. The pall-bearers were
Governor Barbour, Philip P. Barbour, Charles P. Howard, and
Reuben Conway; the two last were neighboring farmers.