PAUL JENNINGS

Folks confer a couple of lofty titles on James Madison, but “hypocrite” isn’t usually one of them. But Elizabeth Dowling Taylor isn’t bashful about using that term in her book A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons. 

The subject of the book was born into slavery on Montpelier, Madison’s farm in Virginia, and remained in bondage until he was 46 years of age. Within the stifling confines of slavery, Jennings rose to the highest possible place, serving for many years — including the White House years — as Madison’s “body servant.” That meant that he attended to Madison’s personal needs — shaving him, for instance — and traveled with him pretty much everywhere. He also was often the first person a visitor encountered, and he supervised the other household staff in preparing dinners and receptions. Taylor surmises that Jennings, who was literate, paid a lot of attention to the conversations that took place when political and social leaders visited the Madisons.

JAMES MADISON

One of the influential people Jennings became familiar with was Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who served as a U.S. senator and as secretary of state. Madison had agreed, under pressure from a family member, to provide in his will that his slaves would be freed after specified periods. Madison — whose titles included “Father of the Bill of Rights” — reneged on that commitment and left about 100 slaves to his wife, with the provision that they would not be sold and that they would be freed at some point. When Dolley Madison began selling slaves in order to allay her financial problems, Jennings approached Webster, who had in the past assisted slaves. Webster arranged through a third party for Jennings to buy his freedom; Jennings worked for Webster for several years, and eventually, Webster took on the loan himself.

DANIEL WEBSTER

Jennings was the father of five; he married three times and was widowed twice. When he had satisfied his debt to Webster, he took a job in the Interior Department and worked there until a few years before his death in 1874. During the balance of his working life, he was a bookbinder.

Jennings also seems to have been something of an activist. The evidence Taylor had at her disposal suggested to her that even while he himself was a slave, he forged documents for others trying to get to free states and that after he had achieved his own freedom he was a player in the largest known attempt by slaves to escape to the North — 77 men, women, and children who tried to slip out of Washington via the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.

MARQUIS de LAFAYETTE

The most dramatic incident that occurred during Jennings’ years as a slave probably was the invasion of Washington by British troops in 1814. By Taylor’s account, Jennings was one of the servants at the White House with Dolley Madison when the alarm came that the house had to be evacuated, and he evidently was among the small group that removed the life-sized Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that now hangs in the East Room. The painting almost certainly would have been destroyed when the British ransacked and burned the mansion.

Taylor’s account of Jennings’ life provides a lot of insight into slavery in Virginia, which was a complex system governed by both necessity and tradition. Her book also explores the contradictory position in which Madison and his close friend, Thomas Jefferson, found themselves. Both men publicly acknowledged that human slavery was essentially evil and that it should be eliminated, but both men kept scores of slaves to labor on their behalf. They were openly berated for this by abolitionists in the United States and by visitors from abroad. The Marquis de Lafayette, for example, visited the United States in 1824 and told Madison and Jefferson that he was nonplussed to find that almost a half century after he had fought for human liberty in the colonies, two of the principal figures of the Revolution were still keeping human beings in bondage.

THOMAS JEFFERSON

Madison gave what turned out to be only lip service to emancipation, insisting that while it was desirable, it was also more important to preserve the federal union. Madison also argued that any plan to emancipate slaves had to include a plan to remove them from the United States — probably to west Africa, where none of them had ever lived. His reasoning was that black and white Americans could not live together in peace, and he based that conclusion on his opinion that black people were a depraved race, lazy, profligate, and likely to resort to violence — an idea that apparently was not diluted by his long and close exposure to Paul Jennings, who was none of those things.

Advertisements

I grew up among the remnants of war. I was born in September 1942 when the United States had been engaging Nazi Germany and Japan for less than a year. By the time I was old enough to be aware of my surroundings, there still were handwritten letters from the front, brass uniform buttons, photos of soldiers, sailors, and marines, patriotic records, and newspaper clippings reporting on the service of relatives and friends, including cousin Mike Aun, who was awarded the Bronze Star twice, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart with three oak-leaf clusters.

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT

I also recall that for a long time after 1945, my parents and other adults would frame their conversations in terms of what had occurred before, during, and after “the war.” They needn’t say which war.

So although I don’t remember the war itself, I feel that it was a part of my life, and I eagerly learn as much about it as I can. My most recent opportunity came in the form of Pearl Harbor Christmas, a new book by Stanley Weintraub.

In this compact book, Weintraub describes events at home and abroad from December 22, 1941, to January 1, 1942 — devoting a chapter to each day. The dominant personalities by far are Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Churchill was staying at the White House after crossing the submarine-infested Atlantic in winter seas. He couldn’t wait to get to Washington, because Pearl Harbor had accomplished what he could not, forcing the United States into a war that Britain probably could not survive otherwise. But, although the newborn American belligerence was directed mostly at Japan, Churchill wanted to make sure, and did, that the U.S. would go to war first against Nazi Germany.

WINSTON CHURCHILL

Churchill addressed a joint session of Congress, spoke at the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony on the White House lawn — the only time he and Roosevelt spoke from the same platform — and dashed up to Ottawa to speak before the Canadian Parliament. What with his blustering, his cigar-smoking, and his drinking, he was quite the counterpoint to patrician, dignified Roosevelt. Actually, he came across more like Lyndon Johnson: Weintraub describes an incident on December 26 when Churchill was dictating to a male secretary notes for the address to Congress. Churchill was in his bath when he started dictating. He got out, wrapped a towel around himself, walked to an adjoining bedroom, dropped the towel, and continued dictating, stark naked. Suddenly, the secretary recalled, “President Roosevelt [in his wheelchair] entered the bedroom and saw the British Prime Minister completely naked walking around the room dictating to me. WSC never being lost for words said, ‘You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to conceal from you.”’

While Roosevelt and Churchill and others were in Washington working issues of joint command, Adolf Hitler was in Berlin or Bavaria trying to chew the great deal he had bitten off.

ADOLF HITLER

Hitler’s troops were in trouble on the Russian front, and even those closer to home were suffering from a lack of adequate supplies. Hitler actually had Joseph Goebbels run a clothing drive  to help keep his soldiers warm. In a radio address, Goebbels told the German people that they “would not deserve a moment’s peace if a single German soldier was exposed to the harshness of winter without articles of warm clothing.”

Meanwhile, the situation in the Pacific continued to deteriorate as the Japanese took advantage of their momentum and munched away at the region. Churchill had not yet publicly acknowledged the reality, Weintraub writes, and continued to waste resources trying  to defend ground that was already as good as lost.

Even more closely involved in such a charade was U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had to abandon his headquarters and retreat with his wife and son to a tunnel in Corregidor while he continued to send out dispatches about tank battles, with nonexistent tanks, putting up a fight that wasn’t occurring.

DOUGLAS MACARTHUR

Weintraub explains that there was a certain ambivalence about the war in the United States at first; it still seemed far away.

Still, the government took the impending conflict seriously enough to pack up the founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — and ship them off under heavy security to repose in Fort Knox for the duration.

The holidays went on as usual. Despite security concerns, Roosevelt insisted that the national tree be on the White House lawn, not in Lafayette Park where the Secret Service wanted it. There were presents, too, including eight thousand cigars sent to Churchill from various sources.

The new year was marked by a couple of oddities – Churchill making a rare visit to a church, attending a service with Roosevelt in Alexandria, Va., and the beleaguered Hitler publicly invoking “the Lord” in hoping that 1942 would bring positive results for the German people.

Throughout the United States, however, the prospects of what would come in the next three and half years did not weigh heavily on the celebratory spirit, and that, Weintraub writes, included the biggest celebration of all:

“ ‘If there was uneasiness over the possibility of Axis bombs falling into Times Square,’ the Times reported, ‘you could not read it in the celebrants’ faces.’ Despite Pearl Harbor and the reality of world war, it had not yet reached very far into the American psyche.’’

PRESIDENT REAGAN

PRESIDENT REAGAN

Back in the days when I was somebody, I had lunch a couple of times at the White House. Well, in the interest of full disclosure I should admit that I had lunch at the White House precisely because I was nobody. I don’t know if this is still true, but for a couple of administrations anyway the White House would invite “out-of-town” editors to stop in for a day — “out of town” editors meaning those whose publications were not significant enough to have regular representation in the capital.

One of my visits occurred during the Reagan administration. It consisted of a series of individual briefings by the top cabinet members and by George H. W. Bush, who was then vice president. I took some great pictures of Jeane Kirkpatrick, giving no thought to what I would do with them.

At lunch time, we out-of-towners were ushered into the East Room, which had been done up for a banquet. A Marine chamber group played and we lunchers were served by the liveried staff as though we … well, as though we were somebody. There were other guests there — no doubt a little more influential than any of us — and Ronald Reagan gave a talk. That was our contact with the president.

PRESIDENT CARTER

PRESIDENT CARTER

My first visit was during the Carter administration. There were morning briefings similar to those in the Reagan era and a discussion in the Cabinet Room in which we and Jimmy Carter were the only participants. Between the briefings and the meeting with the president, we were ushered into a large mundane business office whose occupants apparently had been shooed away. On one of the desks were trays of sandwiches and canned soda. This, we were told, was “a Carter lunch.” Presumably there were messages in all this about access to the president and about care for the public’s money.

I see by the papers that the Obama administration has taken the second part of that message a little further and is requiring some visitors, and even some staff members, to pay for what they eat when they are chatting with his excellency. Calvin Coolidge would have liked that.

The story, from the Christian Science Monitor, is at this link:

http://features.csmonitor.com/politics/2009/07/31/with-barack-obama-no-free-lunch-for-visitors-or-staff/