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A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison

A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison
Title: A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison
Release Date: 2018-06-03
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
Count views: 35
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Among the laborers at the Department of the Interior is an intelligentcolored man, Paul Jennings, who was born a slave on President Madison'sestate, in Montpelier, Va., in 1799. His reputed father was Benj.Jennings, an English trader there; his mother, a slave of Mr. Madison,and the granddaughter of an Indian. Paul was a "body servant" of Mr.Madison, till his death, and afterwards of Daniel Webster, havingpurchased his freedom of Mrs. Madison. His character for sobriety,truth, and fidelity, is unquestioned; and as he was a daily witness ofinteresting events, I have thought some of his recollections were worthwriting down in almost his own language.

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On the 10th of January, 1865, at a curious sale of books, coins andautographs belonging to Edward M. Thomas, a colored man, for many yearsMessenger to the House of Representatives, was sold, among other curiouslots, an autograph of Daniel Webster, containing these words: "I havepaid $120 for the freedom of Paul Jennings; he agrees to work out thesame at $8 per month, to be furnished with board, clothes, washing," &c.

J. B. R.

Handwritten text

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About ten years before Mr. Madison was President, he and Colonel Monroewere rival candidates for the Legislature. Mr. Madison was anxious to beelected, and sent his chariot to bring up a Scotchman to the polls, wholived in the neighborhood. But when brought up, he cried out: "Put medown for Colonel Monroe, for he was the first man that took me by thehand in this country." Colonel Monroe was elected, and his friends jokedMr. Madison pretty hard about his Scotch friend, and I have heard Mr.Madison and Colonel Monroe have many a hearty laugh over the subject,for years after.

When Mr. Madison was chosen President, we came on and moved into the[Pg 6]White House; the east room was not finished, and Pennsylvania Avenuewas not paved, but was always in an awful condition from either mud ordust. The city was a dreary place.

Mr. Robert Smith was then Secretary of State, but as he and Mr. Madisoncould not agree, he was removed, and Colonel Monroe appointed to hisplace. Dr. Eustis was Secretary of War—rather a rough, blustering man;Mr. Gallatin, a tip-top man, was Secretary of the Treasury; and Mr.Hamilton, of South Carolina, a pleasant gentleman, who thought Mr.Madison could do nothing wrong, and who always concurred in every thinghe said, was Secretary of the Navy.

Before the war of 1812 was declared, there were frequent consultationsat the White House as to the expediency of doing it. Colonel Monroe wasalways fierce for it, so were Messrs. Lowndes, Giles, Poydrass, andPope—all Southerners; all his Secretaries were likewise in favor of it.

Soon after war was declared, Mr. Madison made his regular summer visitto his farm in Virginia. We had not been there long before an express[Pg 7]reached us one evening, informing Mr. M. of Gen. Hull's surrender. Hewas astounded at the news, and started back to Washington the nextmorning.

After the war had been going on for a couple of years, the people ofWashington began to be alarmed for the safety of the city, as theBritish held Chesapeake Bay with a powerful fleet and army. Every thingseemed to be left to General Armstrong, then Secretary of war, whoridiculed the idea that there was any danger. But, in August, 1814, theenemy had got so near, there could be no doubt of their intentions.Great alarm existed, and some feeble preparations for defence were made.Com. Barney's flotilla was stripped of men, who were placed in battery,at Bladensburg, where they fought splendidly. A large part of his menwere tall, strapping negroes, mixed with white sailors and marines. Mr.Madison reviewed them just before the fight, and asked Com. Barney ifhis "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[Pg 8] their gunsfirst." They fought till a large part of them were killed or wounded;and Barney himself wounded and taken prisoner. One or two of thesenegroes are still living here.

Well, on the 24th of August, sure enough, the British reachedBladensburg, and the fight began between 11 and 12. Even that verymorning General Armstrong assured Mrs. Madison there was no danger. ThePresident, with General Armstrong, General Winder, Colonel Monroe,Richard Rush, Mr. Graham, Tench Ringgold, and Mr. Duvall, rode out onhorseback to Bladensburg to see how things looked. Mrs. Madison ordereddinner to be ready at 3, as usual; I set the table myself, and broughtup the ale, cider, and wine, and placed them in the coolers, as all theCabinet and several military gentlemen and strangers were expected.While waiting, at just about 3, as Sukey, the house-servant, was lollingout of a chamber window, James Smith, a free colored man who hadaccompanied Mr. Madison to Bladensburg, gallopped up to the house,waving his hat,[Pg 9] and cried out, "Clear out, clear out! General Armstronghas ordered a retreat!" All then was confusion. Mrs. Madison ordered hercarriage, and passing through the dining-room, caught up what silver shecould crowd into her old-fashioned reticule, and then jumped into thechariot with her servant girl Sukey, and Daniel Carroll, who took chargeof them; Jo. Bolin drove them over to Georgetown Heights; the Britishwere expected in a few minutes. Mr. Cutts, her brother-in-law, sent meto a stable on 14th street, for his carriage. People were running inevery direction. John Freeman (the colored butler) drove off in thecoachee with his wife, child, and servant; also a feather bed lashed onbehind the coachee, which was all the furniture saved, except part ofthe silver and the portrait of Washington (of which I will tell youby-and-by).

I will here mention that although the British were expected everyminute, they did not arrive for some hours; in the mean time, a rabble,taking[Pg 10] advantage of the confusion, ran all over the White House, andstole lots of silver and whatever they could lay their hands on.

About sundown I walked over to the Georgetown ferry, and found thePresident and all hands (the gentlemen named before, who acted as a sortof body-guard for him) waiting for the boat. It soon returned, and weall crossed over, and passed up the road about a mile; they then left usservants to wander about. In a short time several wagons fromBladensburg, drawn by Barney's artillery horses, passed up the road,having crossed the Long Bridge before it was set on fire. As we werecutting up some pranks a white wagoner ordered us away, and told his boyTommy to reach out his gun, and he would shoot us. I told him "he hadbetter have used it at Bladensburg." Just then we came up with Mr.Madison and his friends, who had been wandering about for some hours,consulting what to do. I walked on to a Methodist minister's, and in theevening, while he[Pg 11] was at prayer, I heard a tremendous explosion, and,rushing out, saw that the public buildings, navy yard, ropewalks, &c.,were on fire.

Mrs. Madison slept that night at Mrs. Love's, two or three miles overthe river. After leaving that place she called in at a house, and wentup stairs. The lady of the house learning who she was, became furious,and went to the stairs and screamed out, "Miss Madison! if that's you,come down and go out! Your husband has got mine out fighting, and d—you, you shan't stay in my house; so get out!" Mrs. Madison complied,and went to Mrs. Minor's, a few miles further, where she stayed a day ortwo, and then returned to Washington, where she found Mr. Madison at herbrother-in-law's, Richard Cutts, on F street. All the facts about Mrs.M. I learned from her servant Sukey. We moved into the house of ColonelJohn B. Taylor, corner of 18th street and New York Avenue, where welived till the news of peace arrived.

In two or three weeks after we returned, [Pg 12]Congress met in extra session,at Blodgett's old shell of a house on 7th street (where the GeneralPost-office now stands). It was three stories high, and had been usedfor a theatre, a tavern, an Irish boarding house, &c.; but both Housesof Congress managed to get along in it very well, notwithstanding it hadto accommodate the Patent-office, City and General Post-office,committee-rooms, and what was left of the Congressional Library, at thesame time. Things are very different now.

The next summer, Mr. John Law, a large property-holder about theCapitol, fearing it would not be rebuilt, got up a subscription andbuilt a large brick building (now called the Old Capitol, where thesecesh prisoners are confined), and offered it to Congress for theiruse, till the Capitol could be rebuilt. This coaxed them back, thoughstrong efforts were made to remove the seat of government north; but thesouthern members kept it here.

It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped fromthe White House,[Pg 13] she cut out from the frame the large portrait ofWashington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. Thisis totally false. She had no time for doing it. It would have required aladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in herreticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, andwere expected every moment. John Susé (a Frenchman, then door-keeper,and still living) and Magraw, the President's gardener, took it down andsent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such othervaluables as could be hastily got hold of. When the British did arrive,they ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I hadprepared for the President's party.

When the news of peace arrived, we were crazy with joy. Miss SallyColes, a cousin of Mrs. Madison, and afterwards wife of AndrewStevenson, since minister to England, came to the head of the stairs,crying out, "Peace! peace!" and told John Freeman (the butler) to serveout wine liberally to the servants and others. I played[Pg 14] the President'sMarch on the violin, John Susé and some others were drunk for two days,and such another joyful time was never seen in Washington. Mr. Madisonand all his Cabinet were as pleased as any, but did not show their joyin this manner.

Mrs. Madison was a remarkably fine woman. She was beloved by every bodyin Washington, white and colored. Whenever soldiers marched by, duringthe war, she always sent out and invited them in to take wine andrefreshments, giving them liberally of the best in the house. Madeirawine was better in those days than now, and more freely drank. In thelast days of her life, before Congress purchased her husband's papers,she was in a state of absolute poverty, and I think sometimes sufferedfor the necessaries of life. While I was a servant to Mr. Webster, heoften sent me to her with a market-basket full of provisions, and toldme whenever I saw anything in the house that I thought she was in needof, to take it to her. I often did this, and [Pg 15]occasionally gave hersmall sums from my own pocket, though I had years before bought myfreedom of her.

Mr. Madison, I think, was one of the best men that ever lived. I neversaw him in a passion, and never knew him to strike a slave, although hehad over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it.Whenever any slaves were reported to him as stealing or "cutting up"badly, he would send for them and admonish them privately, and nevermortify them by doing it before others. They generally served him veryfaithfully. He was temperate in his habits. I don't think he drank aquart of brandy in his whole life. He ate

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