Did James Madison own Slaves? #205

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James Madison The Fourth President of the United States of America

Series on Presidential Slavery

James Madison was born on March 16, 1751, at Belle Grove Plantation near Port Conway, Virginia. His family had lived in Virginia since the mid-1600s. His father was a tobacco planter who grew up on a plantation, then called Mount Pleasant, which he inherited upon reaching adulthood. With an estimated 100 slaves and a 5,000 acres plantation, Madison’s father was the largest landowner and a leading citizen in the Piedmont. Madison’s maternal grandfather was a prominent planter and tobacco merchant. In the early 1760s, the Madison family moved into a newly built house, which they named Montpelier.

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Madison was well educated in Latin, Greek and Theology; with emphasis placed on speech and debate.  He held a Bachelor of Arts degree and could have entered the clergy or law professions.  He continued at Princeton to study Hebrew and political philosophy.  Madison saw himself as a law student but never as a lawyer – he never joined the bar or practiced.

Madison married Dolly Payne Todd, a 26-year-old widow, previously wife of John Todd, a Quaker in Philadelphia. Dolly suffered recurring illnesses because of her exposure to yellow fever.  Madison never had children, but he adopted Dolly’s one surviving son, John Payne Todd after the marriage.

Madison inherited Montpelier and other possessions, including his father’s numerous slaves at his death.  Madison was one person who tried to find an answer to the problem of slavery, it concerned him greatly.  Madison held many important political offices; he used these offices to try to bring to an end this “evil” in his society. When Madison wrote home to his father he would often ask about “the family.” To Madison “the family” included the family slaves.  Yet, he continued to maintain slaves at Montpelier.  In today’s world, that is hypocritical as one cannot own a slave yet feel “bad” that there is slavery.

Madison wrote to his brother, Ambrose, that the backward step would not only be dishonorable but would make the dreaded freeing of all slaves that much sooner. Madison dreaded the freeing of all slaves because neither he nor Thomas Jefferson thought that it was the proper time to advance the proposition of total emancipation. During that same year, 1785, Madison spoke in favor of a Jefferson bill for the gradual abolition of slavery; it failed.

Madison’s feelings about the slavery issue become even clearer as events led to the Federal Convention of 1787.  Madison wrote, “Where slavery exists the republican Theory becomes still more fallacious.”  However at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Madison argued in support of the clause extending slave trade until 1808 by saying that the convention did it in order to keep the Southern states in the union, for if they did not join the union, the consequences might be dreadful.

Madison continued to work to bring about an end to slavery through prudent constitutional methods.  He spoke of placing a tax on imported slaves. No matter what Madison did, he had slaves and looked for ways of changing slavery, slowly, who would take care of Montpelier?

He felt compassion; on one occasion before leaving home he left instructions to Mordecai Collins, one of several overseers on his Montpelier estate, “To treat the Negroes with all the humanity & kindness consistent with their necessary subordination and work.”  Again, hypocritical, he did not actually want them “free” at the time, but treated kindly, now today’s evaluation of that is “they were still not free”. 

Madison’s planned for the gradual ending of the peculiar institution in his “Memorandum on an African Colony for Freed Slaves” with the means of establishing a Settlement of freed blacks on the Coast of Africa.   It may be remarked as one motive to a compassionate experiment, would today’s Black Community say Madison was compassionate, and I doubt it.  He hopes to put an end to slavery involving approximately 600,000 slaves.  This would be impossible by the prejudices of the Whites.

Early in his career James Madison said that he wanted “to depend as little as possible on the labor of slaves.”  But, he was forced to abandon his efforts to live free of slavery and the plantation system, his livelihood depended upon slaves.  He was also reluctant to accept African-Americans in the country even after they were freed.

As Madison began to draw up his will he started to ponder the fate of his own slaves. Although he had no children of his own, his relatively youthful wife, Dolly, was a concern for him. He wanted to free his slaves, but how? James Madison chose the (was his being kind to them happiness, I think not) happiness of his slaves over any personal benefits that he could receive by freeing them. The portion of his will that dealt with the future of his slaves offered no clause for their emancipation; it read:

I give and bequeath my ownership in the negroes and people of color held by me to my dear wife, but it is my desire that none of them should be sold without his or her consent or in case of their misbehavior; except that the infant children may be sold with their parent who consents for them to be sold.

This would have been a perfect time for James Madison to free his slaves, but he chose not to.  It appears that this “do good” had two sides to his face, one of goodness and the other evil.

After Madison’s death, in 1836, Dolly Madison returned to Washington to live out the last years of her life. Financial conditions forced her to sell Montpelier. In order to keep the slave families together Dolly Madison chose to sell them along with the farm. However she retained some slaves for her use in Washington. These slaves were freed upon her death because of her failure to register them in the city.

James Madison worked throughout his life to bring about an end to the institution of slavery, while owning slaves. James Madison was the ultimate racist, while proclaiming to want a “better situation” for the black people.


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