Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Slave in the White House by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor

This book will unfortunately have limited appeal because of its scholarly approach and necessary supposition of much of Paul Jennings' life. I received it from Amazon Vine.

He was born at Montpelier, James and Dolley Madison's home in Virginia. His mother was Dolley's maid and Paul was mullato so he was raised in the house as Dolley's son's "boy." As Payne Todd's constant companion, Paul was present during his sessions with his tutor. Later, as Madison's valet and doorman, he was present during political discussions and long talks about running the agricultural affairs of Montpelier. No surprise, then that he learned to read and write, and that he was more sophisticated and gentlemanly than many slaves.

During the War of 1812, Paul was instrumental in saving the large portrait of George Washington as the British approached, intent on burning the White House. Master and Mistress both trusted Paul implicitly.

However, he remained a slave until Dolley Madison was in deep financial trouble living as a widow in Washington. He had met Daniel Webster, who was known to purchase the freedom of slaves and let them work off the purchase price in his household, perhaps one of the reasons Webster was always broke. By the time Webster bought his freedom, Paul was a middle-aged married man with children.

Because of Paul's position in life, author Elizabeth Dowling Taylor was forced to make too many assumptions about who he met, where he was at any specific time, what he may have overheard, and who his slave associates were. She does use any documentation she has found in her career as a curator and researcher, and there is more than usual for a slave, but still one tires of "he might have" and "probably."

I was quite interested in learning more about Dolley Madison and about President Madison's views on slavery, as well as the life of a slave in a president's house. As I don't mind scholarly works, I did enjoy this book and I believe the author knows as much as one can know about her subject. One just needs to realize what type of book this represents.


  1. The subject matter sounds fascinating but they book probably wouldn't appeal to me since it's so scholarly.

  2. Oh, so glad you read this for me! Because I hate books that are full of "he might have" and "probably." That was my main beef with Cleopatra. It sounds to me like this was a good magazine article that somebody decided could be stretched out into a book!

  3. I think it sounds fascinating. I am currently having trouble deciding what to read next, just can't decide what to go for so am re-reading R J Ellory's The Anniversary Man until I decide. Have you read any of his? He's from the UK but you'd swear he was American because of the settings he uses and also the style of his writing, he must do so much research... Very, very good writer.