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Let Us Honor Slave-Owning Presidents?

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Here it is again, the intersection of Presidents Day and Black History Month. Eight of our early presidents, beginning with George Washington, owned slaves during their tenure in the nation's highest office. The two I am most familiar with, given my career at the historic sites of Monticello and Montpelier, and as the author of the recently published A Slave in the White House (Palgrave Macmillan, $28.00) are Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Jefferson and Madison owned over a hundred enslaved people at their Virginia plantations and took several slaves with them to the White House. Running the domestic side of the executive mansion was a private undertaking then, and the third and fourth president each assembled a household staff, headed by a French steward, of about ten: white and free black workers, slaves hired in the capital, as well as slaves from their plantation.

Slavery was not a debate. It was a crime being perpetrated on real people in real time.

Ten-year-old Paul Jennings was one of the home slaves selected by President James Madison for the White House household staff. As a footman Jennings set and served meals, assisted the coachman, and ran messages and other errands. Later he became Madison's personal manservant or valet, and in freedom he authored the first White House memoir.

One enslaved man, John Freeman, served as a White House footman during both Jefferson's and Madison's administrations. Jefferson purchased Freeman in 1804 with the understanding, set by his former master, that he was to be freed in sixteen years. In 1809, the year Madison's first term began, the third president sold Freeman to his successor for $231.81 (calculated to the penny based on Freeman's remaining time as a slave). This is the only recorded instance of the sale of human property between these two presidents, though Jefferson also sold a woman, Thenia Hemings, and her five young daughters, to another of our slave-owning presidents, James Monroe.

It is easy to see the contradiction--some say hypocrisy--in the author of the Declaration of Independence and the father of the Constitution lording over plantations of more than one hundred slaves and presiding over a government devoted to upholding individual rights while being served by enslaved footmen in livery.

Yet we tend to make excuses for the failure of our Founding Fathers to end slavery. They were men of their time, they had to put union first, they did not understand that we are all one biological race. We look back and see slavery less as a political issue, more as a moral offense. The truth is that Madison and Jefferson saw it that way, too.

Madison acknowledged that slavery was an evil of great magnitude, a "moral, social and economical" failure. Jefferson called it an "abominable crime" and a "moral depravity" and allowed that should a violent contest between slaves and slave owners transpire, there was no doubt which side God would be on.

Both men supported gradual emancipation if something could be done with the free blacks. It was the concept of colonization, the transport of free blacks to Africa that offered Madison relief from his despair over slavery. Maybe all slaves could be freed, he wrote, if the "double operation"--emancipation followed by colonization--was put in place.

Thus in the end it was not slavery but race--racism--that was the sticking point. Jefferson and Madison thought that people of color should enjoy the same individual rights as white citizens. But not here. They averred that black and white could never live harmoniously in America together.

Two centuries later (centuries!) we are still working on proving them wrong in their prediction, still working on realizing a truly pluralistic society that all Americans honor.

Paul Jennings's great grandson, Dr. C Herbert Marshall, who, along with his fellow black doctors, could not practice in all-white hospitals or even join the American Medical Association, wrote an "op-ed" in the Negro History Bulletin in February of 1960 that started off, " I have every reason to be proud of being an American." It concluded, "Today, we find ourselves on the threshold of a new era ushering in the type of freedom for all for which my fore-parents sacrificed so much."

If Dr. Marshall could offer that positive a sentiment in February 1960, then certainly we in February 2012 can take a sanguine view of the distance we have come since then. If we are not post-racial yet, we are getting there. No matter the sins of the Fathers, it is on us now. A sprint to the finish, anyone? Everyone?