According to his Reminiscences, Paul Jennings was born at Montpelier in 1799, purportedly the son of a white British merchant named Benjamin Jennings. His mother was a Montpelier slave and the granddaughter of a Native American. Little else is known about Jennings’ lineage. He was part of the Madison household staff at the President’s House, and labored as Madison’s personal attendant during his retirement. Jennings began his life as a slave on the Virginia plantation of the “Father of the Constitution” and eventual U.S. president. As a house servant, Jennings learned the appropriate skills and trades of a domestic slave, became literate, and was acquainted with powerful statesmen. After purchasing his own freedom, Jennings continued life in Washington, D.C. as a free man with abolitionist tendencies and gained employment with the U.S. government Pension Office. Jennings died in 1874, living long enough to witness the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments added to the U.S. Constitution.
Jennings in Washington
In 1809, at only ten-years-old, Jennings accompanied the first couple to Washington where James Madison began his tenure as President. Jennings described the emerging capital city as “a dreary place.” Pennsylvania Avenue was in a deteriorated state due to either mud or dust. Jennings likely served as a footman, waiter, porter and perhaps, even as a postillion during Madison’s presidency.
June 18, 1812 marked the beginning of the War of 1812, or as it would become known – Mr. Madison’s War. Under the command of General John Armstrong, British forces marched towards Washington in late August 1814, and despite the impending danger, “Mrs. Madison ordered dinner to be ready at 3, as usual.” Jennings, in turn, set the table for a lavish dinner party and brought out various beverages “as all the Cabinet and several military gentlemen and strangers were expected.” Eventually the danger of invasion proved too imminent for Dolley, who evacuated the President’s House after salvaging pieces of silver, some important documents, and the red velvet curtains from the present-day Blue Room. Dolley also ordered that the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be saved with the assistance of Jean Pierre Sioussat, majordomo and chef at the President’s House, and Thomas Magraw, gardener for the Madisons. Jennings described the chaotic scene – “People were running in every direction” – as Richard Cutts, Dolley’s brother-in-law, sent him to a stable on 14th Street to recover his carriage.
Peace was eventually declared in early 1815 after delegations signed a peace treaty in Ghent in late 1814. When the news reached Washington, Jennings described everyone as “crazy with joy.” Another Madison butler, John Freeman, served wine to the domestic servants and Jennings played the President’s March on the violin.
The Madisons Retire
In 1817, after two presidential terms, the Madison household withdrew to their Virginia Piedmont Plantation. During this time, Jennings transitioned into the role of Madison’s personal manservant, serving in this capacity until Madison’s death in 1836. As a manservant, or body servant, Jennings was responsible for shaving, dressing, and accompanying Madison on trips, as well as running any necessary errands. Jennings’ skill as a waiter, learned and likely perfected in Washington, meant that he was also a valuable and versatile servant, who probably served as the main butler as well.
In 1822, Jennings married Fanny Gordon, a slave at a neighboring plantation owned by Charles Pitt Howard. The Howard Place property was contiguous with Montpelier lands and this close proximity was likely how Jennings was able to meet Fanny. By 1818, Jennings traveled to and from Howard Place. In a letter dated March 8, 1818, Howard sent James Madison, “by Paul,” a file of early editions of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Together the couple had five children – Felix, Frances, John, Franklin, and William – all of whom lived with Fanny at Howard Place. Paul likely visited his family at Howard Place on the weekends and holidays. In an April 1844 letter to Dolley, Paul wrote after a visit to Fanny that “mr & mrs howards sends thair kindes love to you an miss Annay thay wer much to here from you.” Fanny died in the summer of 1844, the same year Dolley sold Montpelier to Henry Moncure.
Jennings was by Madison’s side the day he died in 1836. By his own account, he shaved Madison every second day for the previous sixteen years. On June 28, 1836, Sukey brought Madison his breakfast, but this particular morning he had trouble swallowing. Madison’s niece, Nelly Willis, asked her uncle, “What is the matter?” Jennings recorded Madison’s subsequent last words in his Reminiscences: “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.” And “as quietly as the snuff of a candle goes out” Madison died.
Madison's Death and Jennings Obtains his Freedom
After Madison’s death, Jennings remained Dolley’s trusted servant, traveling back and forth to Washington with her until she sold Montpelier in 1844. Throughout that time, at least one of Dolley’s friends in Washington repeatedly requested Jennings’ services as a waiter: “Is Paul quite well – and will you allow him to wait dinner for me to day at 6 o clock?” In 1846, after giving thought to his emancipation (Dolley even drafted an emancipation document for Jennings in 1845), Dolley accepted $200 for Jennings from an insurance agent named Pollard Webb. Six months later, in March 1847, Daniel Webster paid $120 for Jennings’ freedom, and with Jennings agreeing to work off his purchase price at $8 per month, he had his freedom papers in hand. In April 1848, Jennings helped to organize the largest attempted slave escape in the United States, a plot which ultimately failed.
In subsequent years Jennings remarried, to Desdemona Brooks in 1849 and after her death, to Amelia Dorsey in 1870. In 1854, Jennings purchased a lot on the south side of L Street, between 18th and 19th Streets. Jennings resided at 1804 L Street, while his daughter Frances and her two sons lived next door. Sons John, Franklin, and William all joined the Union cause in the Civil War. Franklin later became a farmer in Dumfries, Virginia. Meanwhile, Jennings secured a government job with the U.S. Department of the Interior Pension Office where he worked with John Brooks Russell. Russell found Jennings’ life story interesting and recorded his story, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, which ran in a January 1863 issue of Historical Magazine and Notes and queries concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America. George C. Beadle of Brooklyn, New York published Jennings memoir in book form in 1865. Russell provided the preface which served as a brief introduction to Jennings’ life and story. A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison is widely recognized as the first White House memoir. In his new station in life, Jennings occasionally gave the aged and impoverished Dolley Madison “small sums of money from [his] own pocket.”
Paul Jennings died at his home in May 1874. He bequeathed his house, located at 1804 L Street, NW, and the attached lot to his sons John and Franklin.
Image Courtesy of Sylvia Jennings Alexander