‘Die by Their Guns First’: D.C. Slaves, the War of 1812, and Historical Memory in the Wake of the Civil War

Delivered at the annual Southern Labor Studies Association Conference in Washington, D.C. in March 2015

In many ways, the former slave Paul Jennings’ A Colored Man’s Reminiscences on James Madison is highly unusual. Published in 1865 by President James Madison’s former “body servant,” Reminiscences covers a scant two-dozen pages and has received even more scant attention from professional historians.[i] This is most likely in part due to its seemingly atypical content. Unlike the large majority of such narratives written by former slaves, Jennings spent little time discussing the institution in which he was held in bondage. Instead, he concerned himself primarily with a few anecdotes from the War of 1812 and Madison’s personal life. It is difficult, then, to describe Jennings’ work as a slave narrative. In particular, Jennings’s narrative (in large part) failed to even mention the practice of slavery directly. Although he did mention the existence of free and unfree black servants, he did not offer his own overt opinion on the institution. This absence of a commentary on slavery is puzzling to say the least, as is the fact that Jennings’s autobiographical work seems anything but autobiographical. Although told in the first person, it focuses mainly on other figures. Jennings’ work should be seen, then, as not a traditional autobiography, but rather as a memoir that has been posed in the terms of a slave narrative by its publisher simply by dint of the race of its author.

For all of these reasons and more, Jennings’ work is, to say the least, exceptional. What makes it even more exceptional, however, is its contemporary context. By reading Jennings’ work with an awareness of this context, it is possible to identify it as a possible attempt to preserve a very particular strand of American historical memory in the immediate aftermath of social and racial unrest caused by the Civil War. This attempt operates on a number of levels. At its most basic level, it served as a rose-colored lens into the household life of a ‘Founding Father’ and his ‘loyal’ servants living in the young nation’s nascent federal capital. On another level it stood as a subtle critique of human bondage, emphasizing the importance of slaves to the survival of the United States in the War of 1812 without openly condemning the institution of slavery so soon after its bloody demise. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it allowed white readers to integrate former slaves into their nation’s past and present as loyal defenders of ‘freedom’ that could complement its growth, rather than upset its ‘natural’ balance. On each level, then, Jennings delicately wove his way between the competing interests of incorporating black figures into the white historical narrative as independent actors and avoiding a characterization of their independence as a threat to white society.

Throughout Jennings’s Reminiscences, there is a noticeable attempt to place black actors in positions of heroism normally reserved for white figures in common lore and society. Recognition of such acts of heroism would have flown directly in the face of contemporary white thought on the supposed depravity and cowardice of the character of black slaves.[ii] By highlighting acts of black heroism in history (and contrasting it with white cowardice), Jennings disputed that strain of white thought. In the process, he implied that any race willing to do so much for the American nation was both worthy of equality within it and capable of attaining that equality without destabilizing the existing social order.

The first stage of this possible subplot can be found in Jennings’s account of the Battle of Bladensburg. Possibly one of the most well known American military defeats at the time of the publication of Reminiscences, the Battle of Bladensburg was a wildly unsuccessful attempt by United States troops to defend their capital city during the War of 1812. Much was done in the aftermath to rehabilitate the image of the American soldier. One notable interview done nearly seventy years later painted the troops as victims to inept officers. “We went to fight,” Major Edward Simms – who had been a corporal at the time of the battle – recalled as a nonagenarian, and we “were much mortified when ordered to retreat.”[iii] The American soldiers “could have whipped them all to pieces” he concluded, if not for cowardly officers like Captain James, “who we asked to resign for not keeping the field.”[iv]

Jennings’s narrative, on the other hand, focused on a segment of the American force at Bladensburg that is noticeably absent from white narratives of the event. In recounting President Madison’s review of the troops defending Washington prior to the battle, Jennings recalled Commander Barney’s naval flotilla, which was made up mostly of “tall, strapping negroes.”[v] Barney, addressing a President doubtful of the integrity of his defenders, assured his Commander-in-Chief that they didn’t “know how to run” and would “die by their guns first.”[vi] Ultimately, Barney’s pronouncement would be proven true. The black soldiers at the Battle of Bladensburg, Jennings asserted, refused (unlike the white soldiers) to retreat until “a large part of them were killed or wounded.”[vii] Jennings was doubtless more than aware of the effect that the image of black soldiers fighting bravely in the defense of a nation that refused to accept them as citizens (while white citizens retreated in ignominious defeat around them) would have on his audience.

This effect is further emphasized by Jennings account of the flight from Washington after the retreat at Bladensburg. Often, Jennings placed the courage he and other servants’ demonstrated in this situation in direct contradistinction to the cowardice, pettiness, and avarice displayed by white American citizens. With the British nearing the outskirts of Washington, for example, Jennings and the other servants with him were tasked with aiding the retreat of American artillery units by placing planks over ruts in the roads. While they were doing so, he recounted, a “white wagoner ordered us away” from his path.[viii] If they did not, the wagoner threatened, he would “reach out his gun” and “shoot us.” Rather than choosing to obey this command, however, Jennings instead responded that “he had better have used it at Bladensburg.”

In his inclusion of this tale, Jennings deliberately focused attention on comparisons between his active contribution as a slave to the survival of the American troops defeated at Bladensburg, and the petty concerns of a free white man whose own actions threatened that survival. His accusation of cowardice further heightened the distinction between the white soldiers that retreated from Bladensburg and the black ones that chose to die instead. In that moment, Jennings made it clear that unfree black participants were as integral to the survival of the American nation as free white ones, perhaps – in some instances – even more so. In the process, Jennings may have worked to integrate the stories of black men and women into American historical memory, subtly altering familiar tales to include an otherwise forgotten – but nonetheless heroic – community.

This purpose is highlighted by Jennings’s next account of black heroism in defense, in this case, of the very heritage of the young American nation. President James Madison’s wife Dolley’s last minute rescue of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington during the flight from Washington is a well-rehearsed pillar of American historical memory. In his memoir, however, Jennings completely divorced Dolley from that legend, asserting that “she had no time for doing it” and would have required a “ladder to get it down.”[ix] Instead, Jennings laid credit at the feet of “John Susé (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President’s gardener” who “took it down and sent it off on a wagon” while a white mob “taking advantage of the confusion” ransacked the White House and took “whatever they could lay their hands on.”[x] Dolley, Jennings asserted, only had time to – somewhat selfishly, perhaps – carry off “the silver in her reticule.”[xi]

By relegating such a traditionally mythic figure to a relatively minor role in such a historic event and highlighting the white mob’s avarice as black and foreign servants salvaged that mob’s national heritage, Jennings again called into question assumptions of black inferiority and cowardice. This is even more effective given the fame of the event of which he is speaking. By placing black actors in the spotlight of one of the most famous moments in the history of the national stage, Jennings offered a powerful example of the means by which he sought to shape historical memories to the advantage of his community. Indeed, the image of servants salvaging the history of a nation that denied them freedom – a task the members of the family they served could not possibly have fulfilled – had the potential to be both moving and troubling to any white readers to which Jennings’ account may have circulated. After all, it would have been difficult for any such reader to justify their nation’s decades-long inaction on the matter of slavery when – in those same decades – the men and women that matter impacted the most were taking an active role in the survival and success of nation that had chosen to deliberately ignore them.

The answer to this dilemma is one that Jennings provided himself, primarily by relying upon a set of archetypes that would have been familiar – and, perhaps, comforting – to any white reader. Perhaps most important is his use of the ‘faithful slave’ archetype, a figure that enjoyed a certain degree of popularity (particularly among defenders of slavery) long before Jennings’ memoir was published in 1865, a popularity that became even more pronounced in the decades after the Civil War.[xii] As historians like David Blight have shown, the notion of the existence of a loyal enslaved population in the antebellum South became a powerful component of Lost Cause literature that sought to combat assertions that the Civil War was a necessary instrument of an inherently cruel institution’s demise.[xiii] By laying the blame for such a destructive and divisive conflict at the feet of a relegated minority – abolitionists – white Americans in both the South and North were able to reunite in the shadow of a memory of unnecessary suffering. In the process, black Americans were effectively written out of that memory, relegated to a role as the childlike benefactors of white slaveholding benevolence.

In Jennings’ own time, the figure of the faithful slave had been used not as a tool of union, but as one of subjugation, allowing white slaveholders to justify their exploitation of human labor by claiming that their slaves both ‘needed’ and ‘desired’ their guidance. Rather than openly defy white assertions of a presumably childlike black loyalty, however, Jennings chose instead to shape it to his advantage. In the process, he may have worked to complicate white assertions of a loyalty that robbed black actors of their agency by portraying their acts of loyalty in a manner that returned that agency to them. Still, he chose not to use that portrayal as a means of challenging the fundamental fabric of the social order. Acts of black loyalty – like those discussed in Jennings’ accounts of the Battle of Bladensburg and the flight from Washington – were, in each case, asserted as decisions guided by free will, rather than products of a recognized white authority. At the same time, each of those acts were done in the greater service of the American nation, indicating that the loyalty of black actors might continue to serve causes that benefited interest that both white and black Americans shared.

This characterization of black loyalty would have been of particular relevance among Jennings’ potential white readership in the wake of a contemporary conflict that witnessed increasing levels of black military participation.[xiv] Indeed, tales of black heroism in the Civil War were already in 1865 beginning to filter their way through the most prominent media outlets on the home front. For some white readers, the capacity of black soldiers for the art of war might easily have been dismissed as a product of their presumably ‘savage’ nature. For others, it might have been an alarming portent of black violence to come. The particular manner of Jennings’ characterization of black loyalty is thus of considerable contemporary resonance. By portraying black figures fighting relentlessly for the United States in the Battle of Bladensburg (as well as in the flight from Washington) with little hope of emancipation by those they defended, Jennings may have been suggesting that black loyalty was neither ‘savage’ nor portentous, but rather the result of a rational decision made by individuals whose loyalty to the presumed promise of the United States transcended their status as unfree laborers.

Such loyalty, Jennings indicated, lasted long after the heat of the moment had passed, an answer, perhaps, to possible accusations that the black figures of whom he wrote were only acting in the manner they did out of an unthinking impulse for survival. This is particularly true of his account of his interactions with Dolley after the death of her husband in 1836. After James Madison’s death, his wife Dolley was compelled in her old age to sell Montpelier and its enslaved population and return to Washington.[xv] Among the slaves sold was none other than Paul Jennings. Jennings’ freedom was purchased by the famous orator Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster for the sum of $120. In return, Jennings agreed to continue his work as a “body servant” for Webster until the Senator had received his recompense at the rate of $8 per month minus room, board, and clothing.[xvi]

According to Jennings, long after he had received his nominal freedom and extricated himself from the lives of the Madisons, he retained a strong sense of loyalty to the family that had once claimed ownership over him. Indeed, while Dolley’s plight was largely ignored for several years by many Americans and their leaders, he himself had supported his former mistress with “small sums from [his] own pocket” and “market-basket[s] full of provisions” from Senator Webster.[xvii] In this account, Jennings demonstrates a level of loyalty that is unparalleled by almost every white figure that graced the highest echelons of American power. By demonstrating his loyalty long after he had gained his freedom, Jennings indicated that he – and other black actors like him – might continue to willfully serve interests that benefited their white counterparts even in the wake of emancipation. Moreover, with the cooperation of the more conscientious of those counterparts – like Senator Webster – white and black actors could work together to ensure the survival and well being of legendary figures like Dolley Madison and – by extension – the history and society of their shared nation.

Jennings’ assertion – through the use of the ‘faithful slave’ archetype – that the cooperation of black and white individuals might ultimately benefit the American nation to which they both remained loyal very well might have worked to palliate the discomfited sensibilities of potential white audiences reading his memoir in an era that heralded immense historical and social change. Readers encountering his tales of black loyalty in some of the most famous moments of the nation’s history might have been comforted by the manner in which such tales promised to integrate black actors into the nation and its narrative without bringing about the demise of that nation’s social order.

They would have been further comforted by that promise after finishing Jennings’ conclusion. In that conclusion, Jennings chose to deal almost exclusively with the character of his former enslaver, James Madison. Rather than attacking the President as his enslaver as the authors of many contemporary slave narratives did with their own, however, Jennings insisted that he “never knew [Madison] to strike a slave” and “neither would he allow an overseer to do it.”[xviii] Instead, he recounted, “he would send for them and admonish them privately, and never mortify them by doing it before others.”[xix] As a result, he informed his readers, Madison’s slaves “generally served him very faithfully.”[xx] Furthermore, according to Jennings, Madison’s character as an enslaver was an extension of his moral quality as an individual. Madison often “cut his own wood for exercise,” Jennings wrote, and was always “very neat, but never extravagant” in his personal comportment.[xxi] Moreover, the President was “temperate in his habits” and did not “dr[i]nk a quart of brandy in his whole life.”[xxii] He even, Jennings wrote, went to the trouble of “rais[ing] his [hat]” to passing slaves that “took off” their own.[xxiii] In short, Jennings concluded, Madison “was one of the best men that ever lived.”[xxiv]

Jennings’ depiction of the former President flew directly in the face of anti-slavery assertions that the institution contributed to the degradation of the moral characters of white slave-owners. Rather than portraying Madison in the vein of other slave-owners that found their way into many contemporary slave narratives, as debauched, lecherous tyrants that maintained a thin veneer of ‘civility’ outside their estates, however, Jennings chose instead to defend the moral character of a man that deliberately exploited his labor without recompense. This could be, perhaps, because Madison’s personal character was so well known among Jennings’ potential white readership. It very well might have been difficult for Jennings to believe any such assertions would have been taken seriously or, for that matter, lightly. Still, at the same time, a possibly equal portion of his readership just might have been eager to read lascivious tales of barely hidden Presidential cruelty. Jennings’ portrayal of Madison represents, then, a deliberate choice on the part of the author, either out of a respect for honest storytelling or an acknowledgement of contemporary circumstances.

To a certain degree, it very well may have been some combination of both. Jennings’ choice to uphold the character of the former President both as an individual and as an enslaver may have served a contemporary purpose. Perhaps most importantly, it might reassure white audiences with the knowledge that Jennings – and, by extension, his newly freed compatriots throughout the South – did not intend to upset the social order or force the abandonment of familiar and comforting archetypal figures. In this case, Jennings’ depiction of Madison directly upheld an archetype that was, like the ‘faithful slave,’ familiar to slavery’s defenders: the ‘benevolent slave-owner.’[xxv] Rather than profiting from the exploitation of unfree labor for selfish or degenerate purposes, as abolitionists asserted, the ‘benevolent slave-owner’ of pro-slavery literature was guided by a concern for the moral well being of his slaves. By portraying Madison as a paragon of such behavior, Jennings’ memoir held out the promise to its potential white readers of a world where at least some presumed facts remained supposedly true, even as others stood on increasingly shaky ground. Furthermore, Jennings’ characterization of Madison allowed his possible white readers to continue believing in the moral character of the United States as a nation founded by fundamentally decent men who, though perhaps flawed, comported themselves in a manner befitting the leaders of a society presumably driven by the twin forces of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality.’

In light of these analyses, Jennings’ memoir might seem to many as somewhat Janus-faced in nature, a work that can appear at various times either against or in favor of the institution of slavery. I would suggest, however, that it does not have to be either, but rather, perhaps, might be both. Jennings’ work is a complicated publication released in an era that often foundered on the cliffs of social and historical complexity in its search for a return to the shores of a misremembered simplicity. In that era, Jennings very well may have been seeking with his publication to offer a beacon by which that return could be deemed possible. In later decades, black actors would be all but erased from American historical memory in an effort to bring about the reunion of the white majority. Jennings’ memoir, however, offered a possible alternative, a solution to the presumed problem of slavery’s abolition that held out the promise of a strengthened social order and a complementarily fortified sense of black agency. The solution, Jennings’ work indicated, might be most easily accomplished through the construction of historical memories focused on black support for the American nation, a support that would only blossom further with white cooperation. In a period of momentous contemporary change, then, Jennings chose not to look forward (like some) to the promise of a future that benefited from black participation in the American nation, but to the promise of a past where that participation had already taken place.

[i] Paul Jennings. A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison. Brooklyn: G.C. Beadle, 1865. Jennings’ memoir was recently republished alongside commentary by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. Taylor was primarily concerned with Jennings’ interactions with the Madisons, and not on the nature of his memoir itself as a product of and attempted constructor of historical memory, as this project seeks to do. See Elizabeth Dowling Taylor and Paul Jennings. A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

[ii] The evolution of the white belief that African slaves were cowardly degenerates began in ancient Greece and Rome. According to Léonie Archer in his 1988 book Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labor, in these societies the prevailing philosophical thought on the origins of an individual’s state of bondage was simple: the “wise man [was] never . . . a slave . . . the real slave is the bad man” who is in bondage” because of “his own faults and lusts.” (See Léonie J. Archer. Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labor. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1988, 29.) Slavery was only the presumably deserved result of any enslaved person’s sins, not the result of any master’s cruelty or greed. Later, during the Middle Ages, Christian leaders eager to continue enslaving non-Christian ‘infidels’ who had converted to their masters’ religion provided a precedent for enslavement on the basis of ethnicity, rather than any relative level of supposed sinfulness. Fearful lest they be required by their faith (which guaranteed equality to all in the eyes of God) to free baptized infidels, the Priors of Florence insisted on the separation of mind from body and faith from land of origin. These men insisted that by the term infidel they meant “all slaves of infidel origin, even if at the time of their arrival they belong to the Catholic faith.” “Infidel origin” only meant “from the land and race of the infidels.” (See Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966, 101.) It was not until the first interactions between English explorers and African natives, however, that these two conceptions of enslavement were combined. Confronted with a group so vastly different from their own, the English naturally contrasted their own assumed characteristics with those of the Africans, first and foremost on a physical basis. According to Winthrop Jordan in his 1969 book White Over Black, in the English mind, “white and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the devil.” Awed by the strange color of these natives’ skin, Englishmen naturally associated all of the negative characteristics of that color with the group itself. The English soon came to view Africans as inherently sinful, and thus particularly suited for a state of slavery. (See Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes towards the Negro, 1550-1812. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969, 7). From works like Thomas Jefferson’s famous Notes on the State of Virginia, or Jennings’ own master’s dismissal of his slaves’ character as “generally idle and depraved,” it is clear that this denegratory combination of ethnicity and character in the Anglican mindset was inherited by its American descendent. (See Thomas Jefferson. Notes on the State of Virginia;: Written in the Year 1781, Somewhat Corrected and Enlarged in the Winter of 1782. Paris: S.n., 1782. and Matthew T. Mellon. Early American Views on Negro Slavery, from the Letters and Papers of the Founders of the Republic. New York: Bergman, 1969, 146.)

[iii] “The Battle of Bladensburg: One of the Survivors Says the British Could Have Been Defeated.” The Washington Post 13 Aug. 1883: 2.

[iv] “The Battle of Bladensburg: Survivors,” 2.

[v] Jennings, 7.

[vi] Jennings, 7-8.

[vii] Jennings, 8.

[viii] Jennings, 10.

[ix] Jennings, 13.

[x] Jennings, 13; 10.

[xi] Jennings, 13.

[xii] Micki McElya. Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

[xiii] David W. Blight. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.

[xiv] For secondary considerations of black military participation in the Civil War, see Joseph T. Glatthaar. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: Free Press, 1990. and Chandra Manning. What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

[xv] “The Wife of Madison.” New York Times 19 Sept. 1886: 5.

[xvi] Jennings, v.

[xvii] Jennings, 14.

[xviii] Jennings, 15.

[xix] Jennings, 15.

[xx] Jennings, 15.

[xxi] Jennings, 16.

[xxii] Jennings, 15.

[xxiii] Jennings, 17.

[xxiv] Jennings, 15.

[xxv] See Gerald Lyn Early. A Servant of Servants Shall He Be: Paternalism and Millennialism in American Slavery Literature, 1850-1859. Cornell University Press, 1982.


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