The former director of education at James Madison’s Montpelier debuts with the biography of Paul Jennings, a slave who grew up with the Madisons, was with the former president when he died, gained his freedom and sired many descendants.
Because Jennings for much of his life was considered merely property, Taylor had to be satisfied with a skeleton of fact, which she fleshes out with imaginative and thorough research, careful supposition and heavy contextual description. Jennings himself contributed a slim document, included here as an appendix, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, which originally appeared in 1863. Throughout, Taylor reminds us of the moral failures of the Founding Fathers, especially their unwillingness to accept the notion that black people should enjoy the benefits of freedom so eloquently expressed in the nation’s founding documents. Although Jennings testified to the kindness of Madison, he was still willing to buy and sell human beings. Dolley Madison does not come off so well. We hear about her petulance, excessive spending (she died in near poverty) and wastrel son from her first marriage. One admirable white man does emerge: Daniel Webster, who loaned Jennings the money to purchase his freedom (after Madison died), allowing him to work off the debt. But this is Jennings’ story, and the author admirably keeps the focus on him—though there are occasional detours to explore context and speculate. Born in 1799, Jennings somehow learned to read and write and gradually assumed enormous importance in the Madisons’ lives—both in Virginia and at the White House, where he was instrumental in saving a portrait of George Washington from the 1814 British assault. In 2009 his descendants met at the White House to honor their ancestor.
An important story of human struggle, determination and triumph.