Ten of the first 12 United States presidents were slave masters.
In this brisk history, Holland (Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African American History In and Around Washington, D.C., 2007), Washington correspondent for the Associated Press, examines the tangled relationships between slaves and the presidents they served, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant, and exposes the convoluted laws enacted to impede slaves’ quests for freedom. Of the first 12 presidents, only John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, fierce opponents of slavery, did not own slaves, thereby incurring heavy costs for domestic help to maintain the White House. Although some slaves’ lives have been lost to history, Holland creates a vivid portrait of many, including William Lee, who worked as Washington’s “body servant,” and Oney Judge, born at Mount Vernon, who was Martha Washington’s favorite. They were among some 150 slaves that Washington amassed by the time of the Revolution, many bought by his wife. Martha cherished Oney, and she was devastated when the woman fled from servitude. Tracked down, Oney was told that the Washingtons would free her when she returned to them—but she didn’t believe the offer. “I am free now and choose to remain so,” she replied. Holland reprises Jefferson’s connection to the Hemings family, whose descendants claimed that he fathered Sally Hemings’ children, and he reveals that even presidents who spoke against slavery kept slaves to run their farms and work on their land. James Madison, convinced that slaves should not be freed into white America, founded the American Colonization Society, “dedicated to freeing slaves and transporting them to the west coast of Africa.” James Monroe, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson also endorsed that idea. Several thousand freed slaves were sent to Liberia from 1820 to 1840; in honor of Monroe, the capital was renamed Monrovia.
A quick, informative history of a lamentable chapter in America’s past.