Five Slaves and Four Slaveholding Presidents in the Early United States of America
Posted on July 22nd, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

Stop the Runaway. Fifty Dollars Reward…… A Mulatto Man Slave, about thirty years old, six feet and an inch high, stout made and active, talks sensible, stoops in his walk, and has a remarkable large foot…..will pass for a free man…..The above reward will be given any person that will take him……and ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.

  • ANDREW JACKSON, ADVERTISING FOR THE RETURN OF A RUNAWAY SLAVE IN THE TENNESSEE GAZETTE AND METRO DISTRICT ADVERTISER, SEPTEMBER 26, 1804

You white folks have easy times, don’t you? ALFRED JACKSON 

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was a general in the US army, known for his toughness and determination, before he took to politics; he was the hero of the War of 1812 during which, among other battleground successes, he led the defence of New Orleans against a full scale attack by the British, scoring a surprise victory over them and forcing them to withdraw from Louisiana, which added millions of acres to the present day southern United States. Jackson was elected as the seventh president of America; he was in office from 1829 to 1837. President Jackson sought to promote the rights of the common man” in the face of opposition from a corrupt aristocracy”, and to preserve the Union. He once said, The individual who refuses to defend his rights, when called upon by his government, deserves to be a slave.” It was clearly a given that in that society a slave did not have any rights to defend, which Andrew Jackson accepted without caring to question the contradiction involved in his own reasoning. The early America that he helped in a big way to build was founded on the utter dehumanization of the defenceless Afro-American component of its population/citizenry (but, obviously, the blacks were not considered to be citizens).  

Andrew Jackson owned more than one hundred slaves when he became president, and apparently, he had no qualms about the fact. He was the last surviving American president to have participated in the American Revolution (1765-1783). The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) in which the American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies defeated the British with the assistance of the French led to independence from Britain and to the creation of the United States of America. Alfred Jackson was Andrew Jackson’s slave, his legal property. Alfred was born to black parents who were slaves in Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage plantation in Davidson County in Tennessee, US, in 1802. Alfred lived there until his death in 1901. (Incidentally, the Statue of Liberty, standing in Liberty Island Manhattan in New York City, New York, US, dedicated on October 28, 1886, was a gift from the people of France to the people of America.) 

The quote at the top which prompted this short note on Andrew Jackson forms the epigraph to the last chapter (Chapter Seven titled ‘How would you like to be a slave?”: The Story of Alfred Jackson’) of the book ‘IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY – The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and FIVE BLACK LIVES’ (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2016) by New York Times best selling author Kenneth C. Davis, known for his ‘Don’t Know Much about History’ series of books for adults and children. It is a book about slavery in the early United States of America that explores the great tragedy ‘that a nation conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles’. The exploration is in the form of a well researched narration of the true, but hardly heard, stories about five enslaved people who, notwithstanding their menial situation, contributed to the shaping of America through their close personal association with, and loyal service to, the four great men or ‘national heroes’ who presided over the epoch-making events that stimulated the birth of the American nation. The author’s purpose is to raise essential awareness among adults and children about a tragic chapter of their history. Appropriately, the book is dedicated ‘To the devoted teachers and librarians who help guide us in our quest for truth’.

‘Us’ here means ordinary American people living today who are just as human as common people living anywhere in the world including ordinary Sri Lankans, who want to enjoy their inalienable rights to ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’. The ‘truth’ sought in this book is a historical truth. It is a  truth hidden in the shadows of America’s past, which, though the author does not explicitly refer to it, has useful implications for all humanity, as America’s hegemonic political, economic, and military power affects every human on earth. The truth that the book tries to articulate, particularly for the enlightenment of the new generation of Americans, relates to the historical fact of slavery indulged in by their forefathers of the past few centuries. By 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence, there were 500,000 enslaved African Americans among a population of 2.5 million in the Thirteen Colonies. What we usually learn as history, Kenneth C. Davis says, is about dates, battles, famous speeches, and court decisions, etc; but, while it is important to understand these things, in the end, history is about people, real people. The book tells the real story of real people – ‘all of them born in slavery’s shackles – who were considered the property of some American heroes’.

The author says in his Note to the Reader that he uses the term ‘enslaved person’ instead of ‘slave’ when referring to individuals who, under the laws of the day, were legal property of other people. The crucial distinction between the two terms here (enslaved person and slave) is that ‘enslaved’ means that slavery was forced on the person; it doesn’t define who they were, unlike the term ‘slave’. Davis means it as a term that expresses respect for the individuality of the people who were unfortunate victims of the slavery system. His book tells the stories of five enslaved persons who closely lived with and served four US presidents, who are remembered to this day with great respect by Americans as national heroes. 

These four heroes were among the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. Quite a number of the Founding Fathers, heroes in the American struggle for liberty, held slaves or profited from slavery in some way. Benjamin Franklin owned slaves, but salved his conscience by calling them servants. Later, in 1790, however, he changed his mind and provided leadership to one of the first societies that aimed at abolishing slavery. Virginia politician Patrick Henry, famous for the words Give me liberty or give me death”, never thought his slaves deserved the same human right. He held that slavery was ‘repugnant’, but did not free any of his slaves because of the ‘inconveniency of living without them’! Henry Laurens of South Carolina, who was the president of the Continental Congress for a term, had become one of America’s richest men. He made his money by shipping eight thousand people as slaves from Africa to America. Some of the most raucous cries for freedom from Britain came from the Founding Fathers, something that provoked Dr. Samuel Johnson to ask, How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” (The use of the word ‘yelp’ in this context was bitingly sarcastic, as Davis points out. Bloodhounds were used to track runaway slaves; they made short, sharp barks, or ‘yelped’ on their trail.)

The five enslaved people whose stories are told in the book are as follows (with the names of the four presidents who legally owned them, and some hints of their individuality): William Billy” Lee and a young woman called Ona Judge, in bondage to George Washington (army general and one of the Founding Fathers and 1st president of the United States of America (1789-1797). Billy Lee spent all his life with his owner. But the brave young Ona Judge made her escape from bondage to the most powerful man in America at that time. President Washington inserted an advertisement promising a reward for her return: Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home” in ‘The Pennsylvania Gazette’, May 23, 1796. No one claimed the ten dollars. The escapee did not leave room for anyone to do so. Ona Judge ‘absconded from the household of the President’ because I wanted to be free…….wanted to learn to read and write”. Isaac Granger grew up among enslaved people on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation during the American Revolution; the principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence and third US president (1801-1809) called these people his family”. Though a slave owner, Jefferson held that the enslaved black were destined to be free, but that the two races could ‘not live in the same government’. Isaac Granger was freed in 1834 when he was sixty. After his manumission, Granger worked as a blacksmith and paid taxes. Tax records showed that he even hired enslaved workers to work in his shop! A former slave hired slaves to work for him! That was the system. The next enslaved person whose story is recorded in this book is Paul Jennings. He is the protagonist of a most colourful story.  Born enslaved, Jennings was taken to the White House as a young boy by James Madison, the fourth president of USA (1809-1817). He fought as one of the African American troops in the War of 1812. Paul Jennings later remembered how brave these black soldiers were, although they were still slaves: A large part of Commodore Barney’s ‘men were tall strapping negroes, mixed with white sailors and marines. Mr Madison reviewed them just before the fight, and asked Com (modore) 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.” (I think the blacks were consciously or unconsciously determined to prove that they were worthy humans capable of bravery.) Like Jefferson, James Madison believed that ‘The two races cannot co-exist, both being free and equal’. After Madison’s death, his widow Dolley (who had once been the nation’s Queen”) temporarily fell on hard times before she got some money from the Congress for some of her husband’s papers. She ran short of even the necessaries of life. Though Dolley had treated Jennings very badly – she had rented out and then sold him to other people to overcome her financial difficulties – he ‘occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket, though I had years before bought my freedom from her’.  The fifth and last enslaved person whose story is narrated in the book is Alfred Jackson. He was the son of an enslaved cook on the Hermitage plantation, Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee plantation. He survived the civil war and is buried in the family garden near the grave of the seventh president of USA and his wife Rachel Jackson. After Andrew Jackson’s death on June 8, 1845, his son Andrew Jackson Jr and his wife Sarah took over the Hermitage. They hired a tutor for their children, who remembered an encounter with Alfred Jackson: Alfred was a man of powerful physique, and had the brains of a major-general…….He was thoroughly reliable, and was fully and deservedly trusted in the management of plantation affairs.”

According to Davis, thirteen American presidents (including the four mentioned above and nine others among whom feature some  such well known names as Martin Van Buren, Ulysses S. Grant, and Woodrow Wilson) owned enslaved people or grew up in slaveholding households. Six slaves worked in Martin Van Buren’s father’s tavern in Kinderhook in New York. Grant’s slaves were the property that his wife got from her father. Woodrow Wilson, born in Virginia in 1856 before the Civil War began, became the twenty-eighth president in 1913. He was the last US president to have been raised in a slaveholding household. 

IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY contains the extremely fascinating stories of the five enslaved people who were the legal property of four of America’s most celebrated men. The four enslaved men and the single enslaved woman whose stories are told in the book lived with these famous men and their families every day, sometimes 24-7 as we say today, and witnessed the great events in which they figured as leaders. The reader gets glimpses of the indomitable courage, dignity, and nobility of the human spirit that persisted in them even in their most wretched state of dehumanization. One cannot be sure that all slaveholders were free from pangs of conscience about their absolutely mean, cruel treatment of a group of fellow humans of a different skin colour and physical traits. Both groups were victims of the evil slavery system, one fully, and the other partly, and were dehumanized in opposite ways. George Washington, in a letter to Robert Morris, dated April 12, 1786, wrote: I hope it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people ….. .in slavery. I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” The same Washington got annoyed when his slaves failed to report for work. Once he saw a man with his arm in a sling. He grabbed a rake and told the man: Since you still have one hand free, you can guide a rake”. Deliberate laziness and apathy were actually subtle forms of rebellion, the only ways slaves could fight back. 

The brutal killing of George Floyd, a 46 year old Black truck driver and security guard at Minneapolis, Minnesota, US, by Derek Chauvin, a 44 year old White police officer on May 25, 2020 reminded the Americans and the whole world that the systemic racism that dehumanized USA’s first president George Washington still blights that society. The media started saying that the incident divided the American society. In fact, the incident traumatized all humanity and had a profound polarizing effect on it. This happened in the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic, whose origin could have something to do with the primarily (white vs coloured) race based East/West economic ‘war’ triggered by the West’s determination to sustain or regain its monetary superiority, where both America and China could have equal claim to be identified as either victim or assailant. The West’s political economic and military domination movement may be seen as a globalized manifestation of white supremacist racism. Responsible grown up people around the world who possess average intelligence and adequate awareness (who form the majority in any country) must, for the sake of the very survival of human civilization, seize this globally critical situation as an opportunity to unite as friends rather than divide as enemies in order to put a stop to this rotten state of affairs. To achieve this, they must peacefully and democratically force the terrorist ruling elite in America that Noam Chomsky identifies (in his writings over more than half a century) and its fawning agents across the globe to reform or, if they don’t budge, elect new leaderships to rule the world. 

In this endeavour, the relatively young but mature adult generation that both George Floyd and Derek Chauvin (automatic victims of a deep rooted systemic evil) come from have a leading role to play before they pass the baton to the young Darnella Fraziers of the world. Darnella Frazier is the brave seventeen year old young Black woman, a high school student, who videoed with her phone the scene of George Floyd’s coldblooded murder ‘from just five feet away’, while all the time imploring and yelling (with other bystanders) at the demon-possessed policeman to let the victim breathe who was being choked with his booted foot  pressing hard on the latter’s neck. 

Kenneth C. Davis’s book addresses both these generations in America and across the world and means to stimulate them to take humanity-saving action. This essay is not intended to be read as a book review. Its purpose is to highlight the importance of Davis’s cogent message to the adult and young people of today’s crisis ridden  world.            

3 Responses to “Five Slaves and Four Slaveholding Presidents in the Early United States of America”

  1. Nimal Says:

    All these horrible violation of humans were t5he order of the day during that time in every part of the world. Sadly a new type of domination by powerful Western countries are emerging. Perhaps the beginning of new type of colonialism perhaps of bad type?
    They are starting with countries which are mineral rich as an example they want the chief justice of VNZ extradited. They want to replace the elected leader replaced by a puppet. Then the weakening of China, Iran and even Russia who may stand in the way. Perhaps this virus is a blessing to halt or dampen this ambition?

  2. Henry Says:

    Great review of a book worth reading for everyone who believes in humanity with its attendant virtues of liberty and equality.
    In the USA, the struggle of African Americans is obviously not over. I hope those who are touting MCC and whatever else are aware that American foreign policy is and always will be for what America gets out of it. Over four hundred years of foreign domination by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British have left their indelible gashes on Sri Lanka and its people.

    There are still many in the US who are not different in their attitudes towards non-whites as Andrew Jackson and others of his ilk were. (By the way, the Trail of Tears was another achievement of Andrew Jackson who massacred thousands of Native Americans to grab their land for white people)

    If you read about what American companies are doing in Iraq and other countries that the US has been in, you will see what it can do to our country. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. What is four hundred and fifty million dollars? No amount of money can buy the independence and sovereignty of a nation.

    Know and beware! Be smart for goodness sake!

  3. Henry Says:

    Great review of a book worth reading for everyone who believes in humanity with its attendant virtues of liberty and equality.
    In the USA, the struggle of African Americans is obviously not over. I hope those who are touting MCC and whatever else are aware that American foreign policy is and always will be for what America gets out of it. Over four hundred years of foreign domination by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British have left their indelible gashes on Sri Lanka and its people.

    There are still many in the US who are not different in their attitudes towards non-whites as Andrew Jackson and others of his ilk were. (By the way, the Trail of Tears was another achievement of Andrew Jackson who massacred thousands of Native Americans to grab their land for white people)

    If you read about what American companies are doing in Iraq and other countries that the US has been in, you will see what it can do to our country. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. What is four hundred and fifty million dollars? No amount of money can buy the independence and sovereignty of a nation.

    Know and beware! Be smart for goodness sake!

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