Open Daily, 9:00 am – 4:00 pm – Tickets Are Available Online.

The Naming Project: Jason

What We Know About Jason

Jason’s name appears in only a handful of documents from 1803 to 1804. This suggests that he may have been enslaved by (or hired out to) the Madisons in Washington while James Madison was Secretary of State.

In early August 1803, the Madisons left Washington to spend several weeks at Montpelier. Jason may have accompanied the Madisons on their journey from August 6 to August 8,[1] or he may have traveled to Montpelier after the Madisons arrived there, perhaps transporting letters or dispatches. In either case, Jason was present at Montpelier by August 25, when James Madison mentioned him in a letter.[2] Jason was about to take on a new and significant level of responsibility when he made his return trip to Washington.

 

“The Mode of Payne’s Return”

Although James Madison intended to remain at Montpelier through the third week in September, his 11-year-old stepson John Payne Todd was due to return to the Alexandria Academy in the first week of September. As of August 19, Madison had not yet decided how his stepson would travel back to school. Madison hinted in a letter to William Thornton, the Madisons’ next-door neighbor on F Street in Washington, that he was forming a plan which would also allow for the delivery of a pair of horses that he had offered to Thornton:

“If we should send Payne back to School, in the mode we begin to think of, [the horses] can conveniently go on to you in about 8 or 10 days; otherwise it will not be practicable till our return. As soon as we decide on the mode of Payne’s return I will let you know.”[3]

A week later, on August 25, Madison informed Thornton that Jason would escort both John Payne Todd and the horses:

“Our present determination is to send Payne back to School under the care of Jason and as intimated in my last your horses will be forwarded by the opportunity. Jason will probably get to Washington about the 3, 4, or 5th. of Sept. the termination of the holidays being on the first monday of that month. … We shall not leave home sooner than the 21 or 20th: of next month.”[4]

While Madison may not have known Jason very long, he seemed to feel confident about entrusting Jason with safely transporting not only a valuable pair of horses, but his young son as well. Jason had apparently proven himself to be a capable horseman who knew the routes between Montpelier and Washington. Most significantly, Jason must have shown that he was prepared to manage an 11-year-old boy on a two- or three-day trip without his parents. Perhaps Jason had younger brothers and sisters, or sons and daughters of his own, so that he was accustomed to taking charge of children. Perhaps Jason had already developed a rapport with John Payne Todd on previous trips.

A 1930-1945 postcard view of the Alexandria Academy, where Jason dropped off John Payne Todd for the start of the September 1803 term. Boston Public Library, Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection, courtesy of Digital Commonwealth.

Having accepting the responsibility of transporting a young boy and a pair of horses, Jason may have felt additional pressure to get John Payne Todd to Alexandria in time for the opening of school, since the trip had been delayed for unspecified reasons. As Madison wrote to William Thornton on September 3,

“We have been a few days later in sending off Payne than was intended. Jason, who attends him, takes charge of your horses, which after dropping Payne at Alexa. he will carry on to Washington.”[5]

 

“Jason Arrived Here Safely”

On Tuesday, September 6, William Thornton’s wife Anna recorded in her diary:

“Jason arrived with our horses – Left Master Payne Todd in Alexandria.”[6]

Anna Thornton’s diary entry recording Jason’s arrival in Washington, after dropping off “Master Payne Todd” at school in Alexandria. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton Papers.

William Thornton alerted Madison of Jason’s arrival a few days later:

“Jason arrived here safely on Tuesday Eveng. and Payne came up the Day after in good Health.”[7]

John Payne Todd stayed at the Alexandria Academy only a day before the Thorntons took him out of school, due to an outbreak of fever in the port city of Alexandria. William Thornton assured Madison,

“We have Payne with us, and will attend to his Studies, that as little time as possible may be lost by his Absence from School.”[8]

From the wording of Thornton’s letter, it does not appear that Jason himself went back to Alexandria to retrieve John Payne Todd.

William Thornton wrote to James Madison that Jason arrived at the Thorntons’ home on Tuesday. After only a day at school, John Payne Todd came to stay with the Thorntons, while a dangerous fever spread through Alexandria. “It is said that the Fever has taken off several persons very suddenly, and the Inhabitants fly the place from alarm. It is a melancholy reflection that there is little safety in any of our populous Sea-ports, and the prevention of so dreadful a Calamity would be worthy of the Consideration of all the enlightened,” William Thornton observed. Courtesy of Library of Congress, James Madison Papers.

“Jason Came Up with Mr. M’s Horse”

Anna Thornton mentioned Jason in two more diary entries during September 1803, both times in relation to horses. On September 11, she wrote that Joe, who may have been enslaved by the Thorntons, “has rode Mr. M’s horse was thrown & much hurt.” The next day she reported:

“In the Eveng Jason came up with Mr M’s horse also much hurt”[9]

Anna Thornton’s compressed wording makes it unclear whether it was Jason or Mr. Madison’s horse that was hurt. Since Joe was thrown from the horse the day before, it seems possible that Jason had a similar experience.

Jason was apparently in need of a horse after this incident. The following day, September 13, Anna Thornton recorded that her husband, whom she referred to as “Dr. T,”

“Let Jason have his Mare to go on (Jenny). — He & Jason went to town together.”[10]

Anna Thornton wrote of “our horses” when referring to the horses Madison had sold to her husband, so “Mr. M’s horse” was likely a different horse owned by James Madison. She did not explain why Jason brought a Madison horse to the Thornton home.

 

A Final Glimpse

Jason apparently continued to travel between Washington and Montpelier, likely transporting supplies and messages. Niece Nelly Madison (soon to become Nelly Willis) was staying at Montpelier in October 1804 while the Madisons were in Washington, and wrote to her aunt Dolley:

“Jason got here last night & brought with him your Letters Oh my dearest Aunt I did not till that moment know how anxious I should feel to be again with you.”[11]

This is the last time that Jason’s name appears in the historical record. It is unclear how much longer he remained in the Madisons’ household. There is no evidence to suggest that Jason came back to Montpelier with the Madisons after James Madison retired from the Presidency in 1817.

 

The Madisons and Thorntons wrote of Jason in the context of what he delivered: A young boy safely returned to school. A new pair of horses. Letters filled with welcome news. The Madisons and Thorntons recorded little else about Jason.

From existing evidence, we can infer that Jason was responsible, capable, good with children and horses. Yet Jason’s life experience encompassed so much that is beyond our knowing. Did Jason welcome the time that he spent traveling? Did he have a family that he was eager to return to? How did Jason navigate a situation where he had temporary authority over a child, knowing the boy would one day be an enslaver? What happened in Jason’s life after 1804? Did Jason aspire to gain his freedom, and live as a member of the free Black community of Washington? Did he succeed?

 

Jason himself remains a mystery.

References

[1] Madison wrote on August 5, “I mean to set out certainly tomorrow morning.” James Madison to Thomas Newton, [August] 5, 1803, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, accessed September 7, 2021, MRD-S 36249, Montpelier Research Database. Madison arrived on Monday, August 8, noting a few days later, “My arrival here was delayed till monday evening last.” James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, August 13, 1803, Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed September 7, 2021, MRD-S 36269, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] James Madison to William Thornton, August 25, [1803], Thornton Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed September 3, 2021, MRD-S 36294, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] James Madison to William Thornton, August 19, 1803, Thornton Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed September 3, 2021, MRD-S 36291, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] James Madison to William Thornton, August 25, [1803], Thornton Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed September 3, 2021, MRD-S 36294, Montpelier Research Database.

[5] James Madison to William Thornton, September 3, 1803, Thornton Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed September 3, 2021, MRD-S 36300, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton, Diary, 1793-1863, Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton Papers, MS 51862, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed September 3, 2021, MRD-S 23848, Montpelier Research Database.

[7] William Thornton to James Madison, September 9, 1803, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed September 3, 2021, MRD-S 12133, Montpelier Research Database.

[8] William Thornton to James Madison, September 9, 1803, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed September 3, 2021, MRD-S 12133, Montpelier Research Database.

[9] Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton, Diary, 1793-1863, Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton Papers, MS 51862, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed September 3, 2021, MRD-S 23848, Montpelier Research Database.

[10] Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton, Diary, 1793-1863, Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton Papers, MS 51862, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed September 3, 2021, MRD-S 23848, Montpelier Research Database.

[11] Nelly Conway Madison [Willis] to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, October 14, 1804, box 1, Papers of Dolley Madison, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, accessed September 3, 2021, MRD-S 26768, Montpelier Research Database.