Madison and Slavery

Research & Collections

James Madison Jr. – On Slavery

Surviving letters from Madison’s retirement present an ex-president who was deeply conflicted over the institution of slavery. Madison struggled over how best to eradicate slavery from his plantation and from the rest of the country. A visitor to Montpelier in 1835 noted that “with regard to slavery [Madison] owned himself almost to be in despair,” that he “talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging, without limitation or hesitation, all the evils with which it has ever been charged.” On the one hand Madison felt that “the magnitude of this evil among us is so deeply felt, and so universally acknowledged: that no merit could be greater than that of devising a satisfactory remedy for it.” On the other hand, Madison was adamant that emancipation ought to be “gradual, equitable & satisfactory to the individuals immediately concerned, and consistent with the existing & durable prejudices of the nation.”

For Madison, emancipation raised concerns about peaceful and long-term integration. Writing to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1826, Madison said, “the two races cannot co-exist, both being free & equal. The great sine qua non therefore is some external asylum for the colored race.” These feelings supported Madison’s role as an early supporter of the American Colonization Society (ACS)—the goal of which was to free slaves and transport freed blacks to Africa, specifically to Liberia. Soon after the Society’s creation, Madison joined as a lifetime member. As a supporter of ACS, Madison advocated for the manumission of slaves, but not so they could join white society as free citizens. Rather, he preferred for those freedmen to be relocated away from white society, either to the American west or to Africa. Madison wrote to abolitionist Frances Wright that it was “the physical peculiarities of those held in bondage” that prevented their integration into Anglo-American society. Madison later became president of the American Colonization Society (in 1833), serving in that capacity until his death in 1836. In his will, Madison bequeathed $2,000 and a tract of land to the Society.

Madison considered many factors in his personal emancipation debate: his poor financial situation (due to poor crop yields, bad tobacco markets, loss of government income, and mounting debts); Dolley’s wellbeing and comfort in the future; the legal caveats involved with emancipation; the familial and community ties his slaves had with those held in bondage at neighboring plantations; and the viability of freed blacks and whites living side by side, given existing racial prejudice.

Madison was aware of the implications emancipation would have on Dolley’s financial future. Without slave labor, it was unlikely that Dolley could maintain plantation operations at Montpelier, a lifestyle she had become accustomed to. Madison and Edward Coles, Dolley’s second cousin and Madison’s private secretary from 1809 to 1815, discussed ways that Madison might stipulate the emancipation of the slaves after Dolley’s death. Madison and Coles recognized, however, that it would be problematic to leave Dolley in that vulnerable position. In the end, Madison’s 1835 will bequeathed his slaves to Dolley, stipulating only: “it is my desire that none of them should be sold without his or her consent.” In the years following Madison’s death, Dolley’s financial situation failed to improve, particularly after bank failures in 1837 led to a national depression. Though little documentation survives, it is evident that Dolley sold an unknown number of slaves prior to the 1844 sale of Montpelier to Richmond merchant Henry Moncure. Included in the estate, Dolley deeded Moncure at least nine slaves. Later that year, Dolley deeded about forty slaves to John Payne Todd who accompanied him to Toddsberth. A small number of domestic servants continued to serve Dolley in Washington until she died in 1849. Like Madison, she failed to free any slaves in her will.

John Payne Todd died in early 1852 and subsequently the last of the family slaves were to be manumitted as stipulated in his will. However, because Todd was severely indebted, it is unknown if those individuals were freed or sold by his estate administrator to repay debts. One enslaved family, which included domestic servants Ralph and Caty Taylor and their three children, successfully petitioned the courts in 1852 and won their freedom.

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Paul Jennings, Image Courtesy of Sylvia Jennings Alexander


Stipulations in Madison's Will

Unlike other founding fathers, Madison did not free any of his slaves, either during his lifetime or upon his death. In his will, Madison bequeathed all of his "negroes and people of colour" to Dolley with the stipulation that they not be sold "without his or her consent or in the case of their misbehaviour." Madison also bequeathed $2,000 and a tract of land to the American Colonization Society.