Story of the First White House Memoirist--a Slave--To Be Told

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HNN EditorThe story told below about Dolley Madison's rescue of George Washington's portrait relies on an account she provided in a letter to her sister at the time of the evacuation of the White House in advance of the British attack. The Madisons' slave, Paul Jennings, provided a different account in his 1865 memoir. He wrote:

It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment. John Susè [Jean-Pierre Sioussat] (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of.

Source: North Carolina Museum of History

James Madison’s Montpelier will present a lecture entitled “Paul Jennings: Enamoured with Freedom” on Thursday, February 12, 2009, at the Montpelier Visitors Center in Orange, Virginia. The lecture, presented by Beth Taylor, Montpelier’s director of education, will present newly discovered historical facts and images about this fascinating man and a newly developed family tree tracing genealogy from Jennings to today’s descendants. The event, which is free and open to the public, will mark both Lincoln’s birthday and African-American History Month. Around thirty Jennings family descendants will also be in attendance.

In conjunction with the lecture, a mural by William Woodward will be unveiled. The painting, approximately 2’ x 11’, portrays Dolley Madison and Paul Jennings rescuing the famed Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington just before the White House was burned in the War of 1812.

Paul Jennings was James Madison’s enslaved manservant. He attended Madison before his presidency, at the White House, and at his death at Montpelier. Jennings began his life as a slave on the Virginia plantation of a U.S. president and Father of the Constitution, and ended it as a free man, employed by the U.S. government, and living in a thriving, primarily black community in the nation’s capital city.

Along the way he was freed by Senator Daniel Webster, helped rescue the portrait of George Washington before the British burned the White House, became an abolitionist, gave an aged and impoverished Dolley Madison, his former owner, money from his own pocket, saw his sons fight with the Union Army in the Civil War, and died a man of property in northwest Washington at age 75. Paul Jennings also left us that rarest of documents, an early, personal account of his life in the White House in “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison,” published in 1865.

Bringing the story full circle, one of his current descendants attended James Madison University, works for the U.S. government, and still lives in the same house in Georgetown where Jennings’ granddaughter and only namesake, Pauline, lived—the fourth generation to live in that house.

On Lincoln’s birthday, Montpelier will host Jennings’ descendants and share the newly discovered history of this fascinating Montpelier resident which will be published in an upcoming book.

The life of Paul Jennings shows us a remarkable piece of previously unknown American history. It is a story of the first White House memoirist, slaves in the White House, the journey from slavery to citizenship, and the complicated nature of the relationship between slave owners and their slaves—particularly between an enslaved black man and James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and one of the greatest political theorists.

Having just completed the architectural restoration of James Madison’s home, The Montpelier Foundation is now embarking on the second phase of the restoration, discovering more about the daily lives of the people who lived at Montpelier through the objects and furnishings that tell their story. Along with this second phase will be an increased focus on research— of furnishings and décor, but also of the individuals who made the Montpelier plantation home. Research here is often difficult as most slaves did not read or write, and written documentation is scarce—sometimes only a bill of sale or a will with a first name leaves clues to those who lived and worked at Montpelier. Paul Jennings is unique in that he left a written record. This record, plus family oral history and photographs, tells us a compelling piece of previously unknown history of Montpelier, the White House, and America.

The Mural
The mural "Dolley Madison Directing the Rescue of George Washington's Portrait, August 24, 1814" by William Woodward will be unveiled at James Madison’s Montpelier on Thursday, February 12, during the lecture.

The mural was generously commissioned and donated by Mr. & Mrs. Robert H. Smith. It was painted by renowned artist William Woodward, a Washington, D.C. native. Woodward took his graduate and undergraduate degrees at American University, and went on to study at the Corcoran and at L’Academia di Belli Arti in Florence. He currently teaches at George Washington University as director of the painting program. Woodward has created murals for the Town Hall in Rockville, Maryland, a conference center at Inova Fairfax Hospital, Clyde’s restaurant in McLean, and “The Greatest Show on Earth” at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey corporate headquarters in Tyson’s Corner. Although a recognized muralist, Woodward also created the design for the silver dollar coin to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Congress.

The mural represents the famous scene of Dolley Madison directing the removal of the Gilbert Stuart painting before the British arrive to burn the White House during the War of 1812. The mural depicts Jean-Pierre Sioussat, also known as “French John,” the Madisons’ White House steward and doorkeeper; Paul Jennings, Montpelier slave, at this time a footman for the Madisons’ White House household; “Magraw the gardener”; Jacob Barker; Dolley Madison; Robert De Peyster; and Sukey, a household slave and Dolley’s personal maid.


• Thursday, 12 February 2009
Noon—4:00 p.m.
Oral History Interviews with Jennings Family Descendants

2:00 p.m.
Enslaved Community Tour of Montpelier
Matthew Reeves, Ph.D. Director of Archaeology
Sites include the South Yard, the slave cemetery, the mansion cellar rooms including the kitchens and “servants’ hall,” and the mansion.

4:00 p.m.
“Paul Jennings: Enamoured with Freedom”
Beth Taylor, Ph.D., Director of Education
Grand Salon of the Visitor Center at James Madison’s Montpelier

5:00 p.m. Wine and Cheese Reception

• Friday, 13 February 2009
10:00 a.m.
Driving Tour of Orange County for the Jennings descendants
Recalls the time and landscape of ancestors’ period in Orange County, including visits to two other former plantations and the Gilmore Cabin.

About Montpelier

Montpelier is the lifelong home of James Madison, Father of the Constitution, architect of the Bill of Rights, and fourth president of the United States. Visitors can witness the home’s recent $24 million restoration through daily guided tours, and leisurely stroll the garden, forests, and many other attractions on the property’s 2,650 acres. Nestled in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Montpelier is located in the heart of Virginia’s wine country on Route 20, four miles south of Orange, Virginia. Montpelier is a National Trust Historic site. To learn more, visit

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