Memoir of presidential valet includes chaotic evacuation in War of 1812, rescue of iconic portrait.
WASHINGTON — In 1809, a boy from a wealthy Virginia estate stepped into President Madison’s White House and caught the first glimpse of his new home. The East Room was unfinished, he recalled years later in a memoir. Pennsylvania Avenue was unpaved and “always in an awful condition from either mud or dust,” he recounted.
“The city was a dreary place,” he said.
His name was Paul Jennings, and he was an unlikely chronicler of the Madison presidency. When he first walked into the Executive Mansion, he was a 10-year-old slave.
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Over the course of his long life, Jennings witnessed, and perhaps participated in, the rescue of George Washington’s portrait from the White House during the War of 1812 and stood by the former president’s side at his deathbed. He bought his freedom, helped to organize a daring (and unsuccessful) slave escape and became the first person to put his White House recollections into a memoir.
Next week, Jennings’ story will take center stage when dozens of his descendants gather for a reunion in the White House. Historians say it will be a remarkable moment in the history of the mansion, which was built with slave labor and now houses President Obama, the first black person to hold the office, and his family.
The White House curator, William Allman, said few historical records existed about the black people who lived and worked in the building during its earliest years. Slaves were barred from learning to read and write, and their owners often considered their stories inconsequential.
So the relatively detailed accounting of Jennings’ life is notable, particularly because he was so closely linked to Madison and to the portrait of George Washington, which is considered the White House’s most valuable historical object. The portrait, painted by Gilbert Stuart, is the only item on display that was also present when the White House opened in 1800. The Jennings family will view the painting during its White House reunion on Aug. 24. The Obamas are expected to be away on vacation that day.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a family group like this visit before,” Allman said.
New details about Jennings’ life and his family have emerged through the research of Beth Taylor, a research associate at Montpelier, the Madison plantation in Virginia. In the past two years, Taylor has pored over court records and tracked down and interviewed Jennings’ descendants, discovering historical documents and the only known photograph of Jennings.
She also found a rare edition of Jennings’ recollections, which were released in 1865 under the title “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.” (A white acquaintance of Jennings collected his reminiscences and got them published.)
In the 19-page memoir, Jennings, who served as a footman and later a valet to Madison, recalled the chaotic escape from the White House hours before the British burned the building in 1814.
He described Madison as a frugal and temperate man who owned only one suit, socialized with Thomas Jefferson and was so careful with his liquor that he probably never “drank a quart of brandy in his whole life.”
Jennings said he often served and shaved the president and recalled that Madison was kind to his slaves. Jennings was 48 when he bought his freedom, years after Madison’s death in 1836.
As a free man, Jennings worked in the government’s pension office, bought property and helped support the former first lady Dolley Madison with “small sums from my own pocket” when she fell on hard times.
Jennings, who died in 1874 at 75, did not discuss his personal difficulties in his memoir, but Taylor and others say he encountered many hardships. As a slave, he was forced to live apart from his wife and children, who lived on another plantation. And he seems to have chafed under Dolley Madison’s ownership after her husband died.
Articles in abolitionist newspapers uncovered by researchers at the University of Virginia’s Dolley Madison Digital Edition, an online collection of Madison’s correspondence, reported that she treated her slaves poorly. In March 1848, the Liberator newspaper published a letter charging that Madison had hired out Jennings to others and then kept “the last red cent” of his pay, “leaving him to get his clothes by presents, night work, or as he might.”
For some of Jennings’ descendants, the discovery of such history was unexpected.
Raleigh Marshall, 25, a technology consultant and Jennings’ great-great-great-grandson, said he was startled to recognize his own features reflected in the photograph of Jennings that Taylor found.
“It was a little bit eerie,” he said. “It’s a lot to absorb.”