How Many U.S. Presidents Owned Enslaved People?

How Many U.S. Presidents Owned Enslaved People?


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The United States may have been founded on the idea that all men are created equal, but during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, slaveholding was common among the statesmen who served as president. All told, at least 12 chief executives—over a quarter of all American presidents—enslaved people during their lifetimes. Of these, eight held enslaved people while in office.

The “peculiar institution” loomed large over the first few decades of American presidential history. Not only did enslaved laborers help build the White House all of the earliest presidents (except for John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams) owned enslaved people. George Washington kept some 300 bondsmen at his Mount Vernon plantation. Thomas Jefferson—despite once calling slavery an “assemblage of horrors”—owned at least 175 enslaved workers at one time. James Madison, James Monroe and Andrew Jackson each kept several dozen enslaved workers, and Martin Van Buren owned one during his early career.

William Henry Harrison owned several inherited enslaved people before becoming president in 1841, while John Tyler and James K. Polk were both enslavers during their stints in office. Zachary Taylor, who served from 1849-1850, was the last chief executive to keep enslaved people while living in the White House. He owned some 150 enslaved workers on plantations in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Perhaps surprisingly, the last two presidents to own enslaved workers were both men closely associated with Abraham Lincoln, who led the nation during a civil war caused in large part by the divisions sowed by slavery, and later signed the Emancipation Proclamation and championed passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery. Andrew Johnson, who served as Lincoln’s vice president before becoming president in 1865, had owned at least half a dozen enslaved people in his native Tennessee and even lobbied for Lincoln to exclude the state from the Emancipation Proclamation.

The last president to personally own enslaved people was Ulysses S. Grant, who served two terms between 1869 and 1877. The former commanding general of the Union Army had kept a lone Black enslaved man named William Jones in the years before the Civil War, but gave him his freedom in 1859. Grant would later sum up his evolving views on slavery in 1878, when he was quoted as saying that it was “a stain to the Union” that people had once been “bought and sold like cattle.”


Number of slaves owned by U.S. presidents 1789-1877

Of the first eighteen presidents of the United States, twelve owned slaves throughout their lifetime, and eight of these were slave owners while occupying the office of president. Of the U.S.' first twelve presidents, the only two never to own slaves were John Adams, and his son John Quincy Adams the first of which famously said that the American Revolution would not be complete until all slaves were freed. George Washington, leader of the revolution and the first President of the United States, owned many slaves throughout his lifetime, with 123* at the time of his death. Historians believe that Washington's treatment of his slaves was typical of slaveowners in Virginia at the time, however he did develop moral issues with the institution of slavery following the revolution. Washington never publicly expressed his growing opposition to slavery, although he did stipulate in his will that all his slaves were to be freed following the death of his wife, and he made financial provisions for their care that lasted until the 1830s.


NEO•GRIOT

1st President George Washington

Note: This website was inspired by Andrew Levy’s 2001 article “The Anti-Jefferson,” about Robert Carter III , who freed more slaves than any other slaveholder in

American history. Levy has written a book about Carter, The First Emancipator.

I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of slavery or the

American character. Details are available in the bibliography.

How many presidents owned slaves? It ought to be a simple question but a search on the web produces a lot of contradictory answers. One reason is that there are really two questions: 1. How many presidents owned slaves during their lives? 2. How many presidents owned slaves while they were president? In the table below I attempt to answer both questions. I have also included selected quotations from the presidents and relevant actions they took. Anything in this font refers to something the president did while serving as president. Anything in this font refers to an activity of a member of the president ’ s family, rather than the president himself. I would appreciate hearing of any mistakes or omissions so that I can correct them. revised 1/11 (thanks to Damon Cannon and John Winn McGlothlin for improvements.) - Rob Lopresti

Of the first five presidents, four owned slaves. All four of these owned slaves while they were president.

Of the next five presidents (#6-10), four owned slaves. Only two of them owned slaves while they were president.

Of the next five presidents (#11-15), two owned slaves. Both of these two owned slaves while they were president.

Of the next three presidents (#16-18) two owned slaves. neither of them owned slaves while serving as president.

The last president to own slaves while in office was the twelfth president, Zachary Taylor (1849-1850).

The last president to own slaves at all was the eighteenth president, Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877).

So twelve of our presidents owned slaves and eight of them owned slaves while serving as president.

Were they just “ Men of their time? ”

Ranking the Presidents

The Slave-owners in Your Wallet

Bibliography (Citations)

Did he own slaves?

Quotations and Actions

1. George Washington

Yes. When GW took over Mount Vernon at age 22 there were 18 slaves. When he married he gained control of 200 more which technically belonged to the estate of his wife’s first husband . By 1786 he owned 216 slaves. (Flexner,p114)

1786: ” I can only say that no man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition of (slavery)… But when slaves who are happy & content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with & seduced to leave them … it introduces more evils than it can cure." (Hirschfield,p187)

2. John Adams

No.
JA ’ s cousin Samuel Adams apparently received a slave named Surry as a gift in 1765. Some sources say she remained a slave others say Samuel freed her immediately. In any case she stayed on as Samuel's family cook for several decades - even after slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts by a bill Samuel introduced.
(Lewis) (thanks to Jim Farrell for a correction)

1820: “ I shudder when I think of the calamities which slavery is likely to produce in this country. You would think me mad if I were to describe my anticipations. If the gangrene is not stopped I can see nothing but insurrection of the blacks against the whites. ” (Smith,p 138)

3. Thomas Jefferson

Yes. TJ inherited many slaves. His wife brought a dowry of more than 100 slaves , and he purchased many more throughout his life. At some points he was one of the largest slaveowners in Virginia.

1776: (King George III ) has waged cruel waragainst human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms against us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another. ” -from TJ's draft of the Declaration of Independence.This paragraph was voted down by the Congressional Congress.(Jefferson, 1984. p 22.)

4. James Madison

Yes. JM grew up in a slave-owning family and owned slaves all his life.

1819: "A general emancipation of slaves ought to be 1. gradual. 2. equitable & satisfactory to the individuals immediately concerned. 3. consistent with the existing & durable prejudices of the nation. To be consistent with existing and probably unalterable prejudices in the U.S. freed blacks ought to be permanently removed beyond the region occupied by or alloted to a White population." (Madison.Writings.p729)

5. James Monroe

1801: “ We perceive an existing evil which commenced under our Colonial System, with which we are not properly chargeable, or if at all not in the present degree, and we acknowledge the extreme difficulty of remedying it." (Monroe, 1903.v3, p 292-294.)

6. John Quincy Adams

1841: "What can I do for the cause of God and man, for the progress of human emancipation, for the suppression of the African slave-trade? Yet my conscience presses me on let me but die upon the breach." (Adams, p 519)

7. Andrew Jackson

Yes. AJ bought his first slave, a young woman, in 1788.By 1794 his business included slave trading and he had purchased at least 16 slaves. (Remini,p.37, 55)

1822: "As far as lenity can be extended to these unfortunate creatures I wish you to do so subordination must be obtained first, and then good treatment."( James,p31)

8. Martin Van Buren

Yes, but not while he was president. When MVB was young his father owned six slaves. (Cole,p13)

9. William Henry Harrison

Yes, but not while he was president.

WHH ’ s father and grandfather owned many slaves. WHH took seven of them with him to the Northwest Territory in 1800 where slavery was illegal. They then became indentured servants on terms

undistinguishable from slavery. (Clanin, p1, and Cleaves,p47)

1820: “ We cannot emancipate the slaves of the other states without their consent … (except) by producing a convulsion which would undo us all. We must wait the slow but certain progress of those good principles which are everywhere gaining ground, and which assuredly will ultimately prevail. ” (Cleaves.p254)

10. John Tyler

1838:(God) works most inscrutably to the understandings of men - the negro is torn from Africa, a barbarian, ignorant and idolatrous he is restored civilized, enlightened, and a Christian. ” (Tyler.P569)

11. James K. Polk

Yes. In 1832 he had fifteen slaves.

1830: “ A slave dreads the punishment of stripes (i.e. whipping) more than he does imprisonment, and that description of punishment has, besides, a beneficial effect upon his fellow-slaves.” (Sellers,p186)

12. Zachary Taylor

Yes. ZT's father owned 26 slaves in 1800. ( Hamilton,p30)

1847: “ So far as slavery is concerned, we of the south must throw ourselves on the constitution and defend our rights under it to the last, and when arguments will no longer suffice, we will appeal to the sword, if necessary.” (Hamilton. p45)

13. Millard Fillmore

1850: “God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the constitution, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.” (Rayback,p162)

14. Franklin Pierce

1838: “ The citizen of New Hampshire is no more responsible, morally or politically for the existence and continuance of this domestic institution (slavery) in Virginia or Maryland, than he would be for the existence of any similar institutions in France or Persia. Why? Because these are matters over which the States. retained the sole and exclusive control, and for which they are alone responsible. It is admitted that domestic slavery exists here (Washington, DC) in its mildest form. That part of the population are bound together by friendship and the nearer relations of life. They are attached to the families in which they have lived from childhood. They are comfortably provided for, and apparently contented." (Congressional Globe 1838. v6n1 p54)

15. James Buchanan

Technically no. While running for the senate from Pennsylvania JB discovered that his sister ’ s husband owned two slaves in Virginia. JB purchased them, immediately converting them to his indentured servants. Daphne Cook, aged 22, was indentured for seven years. Ann Cook, age 5, was indentured for 23 years. (Klein,p100.)

1836: "The natural tendency of their publications is to produce dissatisfaction and revolt among the slaves, and to incite their wild passions to vengeance. Many a mother clasps her infant to her bosom when she retires to rest, under dreadful apprehensions that she may be aroused from her slumbers by the savage yells of the slaves by whom she is surrounded. These are the works of the abolitionists." (Curtis v1 p317)

16. Abraham Lincoln

1865: “ I have always thought that all men should be free but if any should be slaves it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others. Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” ( Lincoln, 1953, v8, p360-1)

17. Andrew Johnson

Yes, but not while he was president. AJ bought his first slave, a manservant named Sam, in 1837. He eventually owned 8. (Thomas, p87)

1865: “You tell me, friends, of the liberation of the colored people of the South. But have you thought of the millions of Southern white people who have been liberated by the war?” (Thomas, p347)

18. Ulysses S. Grant

Yes. The only evidence that USG owned slaves is a document he signed in 1859 freeing one, William Jones. However, Grant certainly had some control over and use of slaves his father-in-law gave his wife. (Simon, p347)

1885: "The (South) was burdened with an institution abhorrent to all civilized people not brought up under it, and one which degraded labor, kept it in ignorance and enervated the governing class. Soon the slaves would have outnumbered the masters, and, not being in sympathy with them, would have risen in their might and exterminated them. The war was expensive to the South, as well as to the North, both in blood and treasure, but it was worth all it cost." (Grant, 1885, v1, p507-8)


2. John F Kennedy


From the influential Catholic Kennedy family, John F Kennedy, served as the 35th President of the United States from 1961 until his assassination in November 1963.

Despite his Catholic upbringing, Kennedy was inseparable from his friend Kirk LeMoyne ‘Lem’ Billings, after the pair first met in prep school.

The pair were inseparable, with Mr Billings helping run Kennedy’s Presidential campaign and serving as an usher at his wedding – and even getting his own bedroom in the White House.

Though their relationship was considered platonic at the time author Jerry Oppenheimer claims the pair had “a friendship that included oral sex, with Jack always on the receiving end”.


Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?

When someone we admire does something we feel is wrong it is natural for us to look for an explanation. In the case of the presidents who owned slaves one natural response goes something like this:

They were simply men of their time. For the most part they thought and did exactly what their neighbors thought and did. It is irrational to judge eighteenth- and nineteenth-century people by twenty-first-century standards.

It’s not a bad argument. But if it as a real argument, and not just an excuse, then you have a responsibility to look at those neighbors. Were there really no men or women who were behaving more like twenty-first-century people? Were there no “role models” the Founding Fathers could have learned from?

Enter Robert Carter III

Most of my information about Carter comes from Levy, "The anti-Jefferson" and Levy, The First Emancipator.

Robert Carter III was a member of Virginia’s planter class, the grandson of the richest man in the colonies. He owned hundreds of slaves and, in 1791, he wrote: “I have for some time past been convinced that to retain them in slavery is contrary to the true Principles of Religion and Justice…”

Nothing unusual about that most of our presidents in this era who owned slaves said similar things about slavery. What makes Carter almost unique is the second half of the sentence:“…and that therefore it was my duty to manumit them.” Carter didn’t just condemn slavery in the abstract he actually freed his slaves. He filled a large book (called a “Deed of Gift” -- it still exists) with his plan for emancipating them, fifteen a year starting with the oldest. Newly born slaves would be freed when the reached 21 (male) or 18 (female).

Why didn't he free them all at once? He thought kicking out several hundred free Blacks into the hostile state of Virginia with no way to make a living would be bad for all parties. At fifteen per year he could get them jobs or rent them farms to help them survive. And once he got his system organized he was able to free more than fifteen per year.

Some of the children of his slaves were still being freed in 1852, forty years after Carter’s death. It is believed he freed close to 500 slaves in all the largest emancipation by one person in American history.

Did the founding fathers know about Robert Carter III? Jefferson borrowed money from him. Washington’s nephew proposed to his daughter. And the brief article at the top of this page appeared in at least eleven newspapers in 1791.

They knew about him, and they knew about the emancipation he performed. They could have followed his example. They chose not to do so.

A Word For The Defense

In deciding to free his slaves Carter had certain advantages over the founding fathers. Any southerner who freed his slaves was certain to lose two things: Money and Popularity. Carter’s advantage was that he had plenty of one and none of the other.

Many of the founding fathers were "land poor." Their money was tied up in land, which dropped in value as fresh Western property became available. Both Washington and Jefferson said they wanted to improve the lot of their slaves once their debts were taken care of. Carter had considerable money that was not tied up in land, so he could afford to free his slaves more easily.

Any southerner who hoped for a future in politics knew that freeing his slaves would greatly decrease his choice of being elected. However, before the Revolution Carter ran for office twice and each time he got clobbered (receiving less than 3% of the vote on one occasion). He must have known that freeing his slaves was not going to make him less popular than he already was nothing could. So he was free from that worry.

Washington had a slightly different problem in that regard. He was immensely popular and had no worries about getting elected. But his popularity had to carry more weight than that states were persuaded to ratify the Constitution by the fact that Washington would be the first president. If he became allied with a controversial opinion it would literally endanger the existence of the country.


Finally, Carter took advantage of a fairly brief window of opportunity. In the 1780s Virginia passed a law making it relatively easy for an owner to free his slaves. The law changed in the 1790s. In other states and other times freeing slaves was harder – or even illegal.

Does all of this mean that Carter deserves no credit?


Definitely not. The simple fact that he could afford to give up a valuable property for the sake of humanity does not mean he necessarily would - or we wouldn’t have any billionaires today. And while he didn’t have to worry about offending the electorate he did infuriate - and alienate - his family, who felt that he was unfairly whittling their inheritance .


Was Carter the only man of this time who freed his slaves? Not at all here is one more example.

The Case of the Secretary

(Most of my information about Edward Coles comes from: Miller, John Chester. The Wolf By The Ears. Press: New York.1977.)

Edward Coles was President James Madison’s secretary. He was also a neighbor of Thomas Jefferson (and incidentally, like some of Sally Heming’s children, he bore a striking resemblance to Jefferson).

After Madison left the presidency Coles decided to sell his Virginia estate and move to the Illinois Territory, where slavery was not permitted. He would free his slaves there and set up those who chose to stay with him as farmers there.This was a variation of what Jefferson had long recommended: that all the slaves be freed and removed from the United States.

He asked for Jefferson’s approval, but the ex-president refused to have his name attached to the plan. He said ex-slaves could never be successful farmers because slavery had made them “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” (p206 )

Coles went anyway. Seventeen of his ex-slaves became tenant farmers and Coles became the second governor of Illinois, and led the successful fight against forces that tried to make slavery legal in the state.

What Does This Tell Us?

Many slave owners in the Federal Era admitted (at least privately) that slavery was a bad thing. (Positions hardened later as the cotton gin made slavery more profitable and abolitionists became more vocal.) Most slave-owners held onto their slaves.


But not all. Some men, like Carter and Coles, talked the talk and walked the walk. If our leaders were “men of their time” then these others must have been “ahead of their time.” But if they could do it, why not Jefferson, Lee, Henry, Madison and Monroe? (Credit where it’s due: Washington arranged for most of his slaves to be freed after the death of him and his wife.)

Our founding fathers may have felt they had good reasons (political, social, financial, legal, religious) for not freeing their slaves. But we can not claim that the reason was that no one else was doing it. That is an insult to men like Robert Carter who, as Andrew Levy suggests, may be ignored in the history books simply because he embarrasses those of us who esteem the founders.


Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?

"I like the Walrus best," said Alice: because he was a little sorry for the poor oysters."
"He ate more than the Carpenter, though," said Tweedledee.
"You see, he held his handkerchief in front, so that
the Carpenter couldn't see how many he took: contrariwise."
"That was mean!" Alice said indignantly.
"Then I like the Carpenter best -- if he didn't eat so many as the Walrus."
"But he ate as many as he could get," said Tweedledum.
-Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking-Glass

Throughout this website I have tried to stick to the objective facts, except for the page titled Were They Just Men of their Time? One problem with objectivity is that it treats Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant as equal: both slave owners. Ditto with James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, both non-owners. On this page I try to distinguish between different levels of commitment to slavery or anti-slavery. The categories are arbitrary, subjective, and my own.


Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved

Schools across the country are adorned with posters of the U.S. presidents and the years they served in office. U.S. history textbooks describe the accomplishments and challenges of the major presidential administrations—George Washington had the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt the Spanish-American War, and so on. Children’s books put students on a first-name basis with the presidents, engaging readers with stories of their dogs in the Rose Garden or childhood escapades. Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution welcomes visitors to an exhibit of the first ladies’ gowns and White House furnishings.

“Why we shouldn’t forget that U.S. presidents owned slaves” Poem by Clint Smith III

Nowhere in all this information is there any mention of the fact that more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold, and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House. For this reason, there is little doubt that the first person of African descent to enter the White House—or the presidential homes used in New York (1788–90) and Philadelphia (1790–1800) before construction of the White House was complete—was an enslaved person.

A shackled group of enslaved people passing the Capitol grounds. Source: Library of Congress.

The White House itself, the home of presidents and quintessential symbol of the U.S. presidency, was built with slave labor, just like most other major building projects had been in the 18th-century United States, including many of our most famous buildings like Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and James Madison’s Montpelier. President Washington initially wanted to hire foreign labor to build the White House, but when he realized how costly it would be to pay people fairly, he resorted to slave labor.

Constructed in part by black slave labor, the home and office of the president of the United States has embodied different principles for different people. For whites, whose social privileges and political rights have been protected by the laws of the land, the White House has symbolized the power of freedom and democracy over monarchy. For blacks, whose history is rooted in slavery and the struggle against white domination, the symbolic power of the White House has shifted along with each president’s relation to black citizenship. For many whites and people of color, the White House has symbolized the supremacy of white people both domestically and internationally. U.S. nativists with colonizing and imperialist aspirations understood the symbolism of the White House as a projection of that supremacy on a global scale. This idea is embodied in the building project itself.

Although the White House is symbolically significant, there is a largely hidden and silenced black history of the U.S. presidency. Here are just a few examples.

A romanticized image of work at Mt. Vernon. Source: Library of Congress.

George Washington’s stated antislavery convictions misaligned with his actual political behavior. While professing to abhor slavery and hope for its eventual demise, as president Washington took no real steps in that direction and in fact did everything he could to ensure that not one of the more than 300 people he owned could secure their freedom. During the 10 years of construction of the White House, George Washington spent time in Philadelphia where a law called the Gradual Abolition Act passed in 1780. It stated that any slaves brought into the state were eligible to apply for their freedom if they were there for longer than six months. To get around the law, Washington rotated the people working for him in bondage so that they were there for less than six months each.

Newspaper ad offering a $10 reward for the return of Oney Judge. Read ad.

Despite Washington’s reluctance to carry out his stated antislavery predilections, the movement against slavery grew anyway, including within the president’s very own household among the men and women he enslaved. One of the presidential slaves was Ona “Oney” Maria Judge. In March 1796 (the year before Washington’s second term in office ended), Oney was told that she would be given to Martha Washington’s granddaughter as a wedding present. Oney carefully planned her escape and slipped out of the Washingtons’ home in Philadelphia while the Washingtons were eating dinner. Oney Judge fled the most powerful man in the United States, defied his attempts to trick her back into slavery, and lived out a better life. After her successful attempt became widely known, she was a celebrity of sorts. Her escape from the Washingtons fascinated journalists, writers, and others, but more important, it was an inspiration to the abolition movement and other African Americans who were being enslaved by whites.

Paul Jennings. Source: Public domain.

By the age of 10, Paul Jennings was enslaved at the White House as a footman for James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. When he got older, Dolley Madison hired out Jennings, keeping every “last red cent” of his earnings. Dolley indicated in her will that she would give Jennings his freedom, but instead sold him before she died. Thankfully, Daniel Webster intervened and purchased his freedom. Soon after, Paul Jennings helped plan one of the most ambitious and daring efforts to liberate enslaved blacks in U.S. history, the Pearl Affair. It was not successful, but as with John Brown’s raid, the political repercussions lasted for decades and strengthened the abolitionist cause. Paul Jennings went on to become the first person to write a memoir of a firsthand experience working in the White House.

In textbooks and popular history, the White House is figuratively constructed as a repository of democratic aspirations, high principles, and ethical values. For many Americans, it is subversive to criticize the nation’s founders, the founding documents, the presidency, the president’s house, and other institutions that have come to symbolize the official story of the United States. It may be uncomfortable to give up long-held and even meaningful beliefs that in many ways build both collective and personal identities. However, erasing enslaved African Americans from the White House and the presidency presents a false portrait of our country’s history. If young people—and all the rest of us—are to understand a fuller, people’s history of the United States, they need to recognize that every aspect of early America was built on slavery.

This article is part of the Zinn Education Project’s If We Knew Our History series.

© 2014 The Zinn Education Project, a project of Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

Related Resources

Democracy Now! Interview with Clarence Lusane | Feb. 17, 2014

“Untold History: More Than a Quarter of U.S. Presidents Were Involved in Slavery, Human Trafficking”

Clarence Lusane is a professor and chairs the Department of Political Science at Howard University and author of The Black History of the White House (City Lights).

Related Resources

‘If There Is No Struggle…’: Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. 16 pages. Rethinking Schools.
In this lesson, students explore many of the real challenges faced by abolitionists with a focus on the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Presidents and the Enslaved: Helping Students Find the Truth

Teaching Activity. By Bob Peterson. 7 pages. Rethinking Schools.
How a 5th grade teacher and his students conducted research to answer the question: “Which presidents owned people?” Available in Spanish.

Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War

Teaching Guide. Edited by Adam Sanchez. 181 pages. 2019. Rethinking Schools.
Students will discover the real abolition story, one about some of the most significant grassroots social movements in U.S. history.

Whitewashing Our First President

Article. By Clarence Lusane. 2014.
Critical review of an upper elementary non-fiction book about George Washington and the people he kept in bondage.

Under Pressure, Scholastic Recalls Racist Children’s Book

By Deborah Menkart
A firestorm erupted when Scholastic released a children’s book early this month, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, featuring smiling slaves baking a cake for George Washington.

Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution

Book – Non-fiction. By Gretchen Woelfle. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. 2016. 238 pages.
Profiles of African American, free and enslaved, during the American Revolution for upper elementary to middle school.


How Many U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?

Slavery is a central paradox of much of American history. In fact, most of the country’s founding fathers owned slaves.

The United States may have been founded on the idea that all men are created equal, but during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, slaveholding was common among the statesmen who served as president. All told, at least 12 chief executives—over a quarter of all American presidents—were slave owners during their lifetimes. Of these, eight held slaves while in office.

The “peculiar institution” loomed large over the first few decades of American presidential history. Not only did slave laborers help build the White House all of the earliest presidents (except for John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams) were slave owners. George Washington kept some 300 bondsmen at his Mount Vernon plantation. Thomas Jefferson—despite once calling slavery an “assemblage of horrors”—owned around 175 servants. James Madison, James Monroe and Andrew Jackson each kept several dozen slaves, and Martin Van Buren owned one during his early career.

William Henry Harrison owned several inherited slaves before becoming president in 1841, while John Tyler and James K. Polk were both slaveholders during their stints in office. Zachary Taylor, who served from 1849-1850, was the last chief executive to keep slaves while living in the White House. He owned some 150 servants on plantations in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Portrait of Isaac Jefferson, slave of Thomas Jefferson circa 1847. (Credit: Fotosearch/Getty Images).

Perhaps surprisingly, the last two presidents to own slaves were both men closely associated with Abraham Lincoln, who led the nation during a civil war caused in large part by the divisions sowed by slavery, and later signed the Emancipation Proclamation and championed passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery. Andrew Johnson, who served as Lincoln’s vice president before becoming president in 1865, had owned at least half a dozen slaves in his native Tennessee and even lobbied for Lincoln to exclude the state from the Emancipation Proclamation.

The last president to personally own slaves was Ulysses S. Grant, who served two terms between 1869 and 1877. The former commanding general of the Union Army had kept a lone black slave named William Jones in the years before the Civil War, but gave him his freedom in 1859. Grant would later sum up his evolving views on slavery in 1878, when he was quoted as saying that it was “a stain to the Union” that people had once been “bought and sold like cattle.”


Missing From Presidents Day: The People They Enslaved

Schools across the country are adorned with posters of the 44 U.S. presidents and the years they served in office. U.S. history textbooks describe the accomplishments and challenges of the major presidential administrations -- George Washington had the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt the Spanish-American War, and so on. Children's books put students on a first-name basis with the presidents, engaging readers with stories of their dogs in the Rose Garden or childhood escapades. Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution welcomes visitors to an exhibit of the first ladies' gowns and White House furnishings.

Nowhere in all this information is there any mention of the fact that more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold, and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House. For this reason, there is little doubt that the first person of African descent to enter the White House -- or the presidential homes used in New York (1788-90) and Philadelphia (1790-1800) before construction of the White House was complete -- was an enslaved person.

The White House itself, the home of presidents and quintessential symbol of the U.S. presidency, was built with slave labor, just like most other major building projects had been in the 18th-century United States, including many of our most famous buildings like Philadelphia's Independence Hall, Boston's Faneuil Hall, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, and James Madison's Montpellier. President Washington initially wanted to hire foreign labor to build the White House, but when he realized how costly it would be to pay people fairly, he resorted to slave labor.

Constructed in part by black slave labor, the home and office of the president of the United States has embodied different principles for different people. For whites, whose social privileges and political rights have been protected by the laws of the land, the White House has symbolized the power of freedom and democracy over monarchy. For blacks, whose history is rooted in slavery and the struggle against white domination, the symbolic power of the White House has shifted along with each president's relation to black citizenship. For many whites and people of color, the White House has symbolized the supremacy of white people both domestically and internationally. U.S. nativists with colonizing and imperialist aspirations understood the symbolism of the White House as a projection of that supremacy on a global scale. This idea is embodied in the building project itself.

Although the White House is symbolically significant, there is a largely hidden and silenced black history of the U.S. presidency. Here are just a few examples.

George Washington's stated antislavery convictions misaligned with his actual political behavior. While professing to abhor slavery and hope for its eventual demise, as president Washington took no real steps in that direction and in fact did everything he could to ensure that not one of the more than 300 people he owned could secure their freedom. During the 10 years of construction of the White House, George Washington spent time in Philadelphia where a law called the Gradual Abolition Act passed in 1780. It stated that any slaves brought into the state were eligible to apply for their freedom if they were there for longer than six months. To get around the law, Washington rotated the people working for him in bondage so that they were there for less than six months each.

Despite Washington's reluctance to carry out his stated antislavery predilections, the movement against slavery grew anyway, including within the president's very own household among the men and women he enslaved. One of the presidential slaves was Ona "Oney" Maria Judge. In March 1796 (the year before Washington's second term in office ended), Oney was told that she would be given to Martha Washington's granddaughter as a wedding present. Oney carefully planned her escape and slipped out of the Washingtons' home in Philadelphia while the Washingtons were eating dinner. Oney Judge fled the most powerful man in the United States, defied his attempts to trick her back into slavery, and lived out a better life. After her successful attempt became widely known, she was a celebrity of sorts. Her escape from the Washingtons fascinated journalists, writers, and others, but more important, it was an inspiration to the abolition movement and other African Americans who were being enslaved by whites.

By the age of 10, Paul Jennings was enslaved at the White House as a footman for James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. When he got older, Dolley Madison hired out Jennings, keeping every "last red cent" of his earnings. Dolley indicated in her will that she would give Jennings his freedom, but instead sold him before she died. Thankfully, Daniel Webster intervened and purchased his freedom. Soon after, Paul Jennings helped plan one of the most ambitious and daring efforts to liberate enslaved blacks in U.S. history, the Pearl Affair. It was not successful, but as with John Brown's raid, the political repercussions lasted for decades and strengthened the abolitionist cause. Paul Jennings went on to become the first person to write a memoir of a firsthand experience working in the White House.

In textbooks and popular history, the White House is figuratively constructed as a repository of democratic aspirations, high principles, and ethical values. For many Americans, it is subversive to criticize the nation's founders, the founding documents, the presidency, the president's house, and other institutions that have come to symbolize the official story of the United States. It may be uncomfortable to give up long-held and even meaningful beliefs that in many ways build both collective and personal identities. However, erasing enslaved African Americans from the White House and the presidency presents a false portrait of our country's history. If young people -- and all the rest of us -- are to understand a fuller, people's history of the United States, they need to recognize that every aspect of early America was built on slavery.

Dr. Clarence Lusane is the program director for Comparative and Regional Studies at American University. He teaches courses in comparative race relations, modern social movements, comparative politics of the Americas and Europe, and jazz and international relations. He is a national columnist for the Black Voices syndicated news network. Lusane has authored a number of books including The Black History of the White House (City Lights, 2010). This article is part of the Zinn Education Project If We Knew Our History series.


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Yeah, just tell me what was the percentage of black slave owners and the percentage of white slaves? Any situation can have an anomaly. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Don't be an idiot! Anyone with common sense will realize that we are talking about the norm here for American slavery. What kind of psychosis does it take for a human being to have the absolute arrogance and audacity to think that he is God enough to take ownership of another human being? anon998707 August 9, 2017

You can't debunk what actually happened, but if you choose to use Slate for your primary research then you'll continue to have a propagandized view of history around the world.

You're the one definitely in need of the broader perspective, unless you simply prefer to believe in that which you'd like to believe.

Slavery has existed since the beginning of time and has always been practiced by whichever peoples were strong enough to subjugate others.

Sad to see so much interest in slavery 150 years ago, but none for slavery still in practice today. No money in it for those supported by the social justice battalions. anon998705 August 8, 2017

As far as I know, the American system of enslaving Africans was the only system that imposed the surname of the owner on the slave. The impact is still felt today. What's the purpose of renaming millions of people, who already had names, unless it is an attempt to establish ownership? anon998703 August 8, 2017

And, the Slate website has an article that speaks to your points. It's titled "Slavery Myths Debunked." I hope you will read it and allow it to broaden your perspective.

All history needs to be seen with recognition with what was going on in the rest of the world and this constant narrative trying to show America as singularly evil with regards to conquest and slavery is naive at least and duplicitous.

Pretending that slavery was unique to the western civilizations, that the slaves weren't being sold by their brethren in Africa, that there weren't black slave holders in the states, or that there weren't white slaves as well is deliberately misleading and if people want to constantly go on about it, then the whole narrative needs to be talked about.


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