James Madison and Slaveryby Kenneth M. Clark
Slavery was a problem that faced all Americans in the years prior to the American Civil War. Many Americans wanted to bring about an end to it but were unable to come up with a workable plan. One person to try and find an answer to the problem was himself a slave owner; he was James Madison. The institution of slavery deeply concerned James Madison, even at the start of his political career. During his career, Madison held many important political offices; he used these offices to try to bring to an end this "evil" in his society. Some criticized him for not using his power to fuller advantage, but Madison had a plan for achieving his objective.
It is difficult to determine where James Madison's idea that slavery was evil and should be done away with came from, however two events, only a few years before his birth may have been a factor. In June of 1737, a court of Oyer and Terminer ordered that a slave named Peter, guilty of "murthering his said master," be hanged.1 His head was cut off and placed on a pole near a creek for all to see. There is no evidence James Madison saw the head on the pole but, he must have heard about it for the creek was renamed, Negrohead Run. In 1745, a black female slave, Eve, was burned to death for poisoning her master, Mr. Peter Montague. Thomas Chew, sheriff and great-uncle of James Madison carried out Eve's sentence. Speculation exists that Madison's father was present and related the story to his son years later. These repugnant events may not have had an effect on Madison, but the efforts of his parents were a factor. The institution of slavery as Madison grew up with it combined "the personal ease of the master with a life long consideration of the servant."2 In his book, A History of the Old South, Clement Eaton describes many Southerners as having a guilt complex over slavery. Historians are uncertain whether James Madison had a guilt complex but he did grow up with a respect for the slaves on his father's farm. This respect stayed with Madison his entire life. His personal servant, Paul Jennings, related years after Madison's death that,
When Madison wrote home to his father he would often ask about "the family." To Madison "the family" included the family slaves.
The first direct reference to slavery in Madison's writings is in a letter written to Joseph Jones. Jones wrote Madison asking his opinion of offering a slave as a bonus to those who enlisted to fight in the war for independence. Madison responded by offering another solution to the lack of manpower by saying,
On one of Madison's frequent trips to Philadelphia his slave Billey became too taken with the principles of the Declaration of Independence, in Madison's opinion, to be a fit companion for his fellow slaves in Virginia. In a letter to his father Madison wrote,
Whatever arrangements Madison made for Billey, they could not have lasted for more than seven years according to Pennsylvania law. The arrangements must have been beneficial to Billey, because several years later he turned up in the Madison correspondence as William Gardener, a merchant in Philadelphia handling much of the Madison family's business. Gardener continued to assist the Madison family in this capacity until he died in a storm on a trip to New Orleans.
Back in Virginia, Carter H. Harrison made a motion, in the 1785 session of the Virginia House of Delegates, to repeal a 1782 act that allowed slave owners to voluntarily manumit their slaves. Harrison thought slavery was a great blessing. Harrison's measure passed by a single vote. James 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 or 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. A young French observer, who wrote about this described Madison as, "A young man [who]. . . astonishes . . . his eloquence, his wisdom,and his genius, has had the humanity and courage (for such a proposition requires no small share of courage) to propose a general emancipation of the slaves...."6
James Madison's feelings about the slavery issue become even clearer as events led to the Federal Convention of 1787. In his treatise written before the convention, "Vices of the Political System of the United States," Madison wrote, "Where slavery exists the republican Theory becomes still more fallacious."7 At the convention Madison worked hard to keep direct reference to the word "slave" out of the Constitution. On June 30th, in the heat of the debate over representation in the Congress, James Madison offered what he thought was a compromise solution. Seeing that the true division was not the big states against the little ones but the North against the South, he proposed that the representation in one house be based on the number of free inhabitants in each state plus three-fifths of the number of slaves. The second house would be based solely on the number of free inhabitants. He also worked to free the nation of the slave trade problem. Of the twenty year limit compromise he initially said,
However, he was realistic and clearly saw that the South would never ratify the document if the trade was immediately outlawed; so he agreed to the twenty year compromise. When the discussions turned to whether the Congress would be able to place a tariff on the importation of slaves,
In the years of ratification that followed Madison repeatedly defended these points. In The Federalist Papers, Madison says in defence of the twenty year compromise, "Is the importation of slaves permitted by the new Constitution for twenty years. By the old it is permitted forever."10 In Federalist #42, he says
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,
James Madison was elected to the new Congress after the ratification process was complete. He continued to work to bring about an end to slavery through prudent constitutional methods. One attempt he supported was Congress's imposition of a tax on the importation of slaves. James Madison argued in support of a motion to place a duty on the importation of slaves as part of a broader import duty bill. Many others supported the bill but wanted to separately consider the slave question. Madison said that some may see some inconsistency in treating human beings as a species of property but that does not happen in this bill. His purpose in enumerating persons with merchandise is to prevent others from treating them as such. James Madison saw no evil in numbering persons as merchandise for the purpose of taxation only in treating them as property. Madison hoped that Congress would express the nation's abhorrence of the slave trade, through a taxation on the importation of slaves. He was not trying to protect Virginia's domestic slave trade but fighting the institution itself through a constitutional method and pointing out its demoralizing effects on the community. His colleague, Jonathan Parker, showed slavery's inconsistencies with the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
During Madison's term in Congress, Benjamin Franklin, in one of his last public acts, petitioned Congress to abolish slavery and the slave trade. This predicament put James Madison in a difficult situation. He could either support the measure he supported or appease the southern faction in Congress that would certainly scream in sedition at such a measure. Along with Franklin's request came petitions from other Philadelphia quakers who also wanted to bring about the end to the slave trade and slavery. Madison responded by saying that the slave issue concerned him also and he hoped that the government would work against it to the limits of the constitution. He felt it might be more prudent to make such efforts in the future when they would be more timely and successful. His response to Robert Pleasants of Philadelphia his was
Madison's concerns for the slave problem during this period went beyond his public activities. 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."15 At this time we see the beginnings of Madison's plan for the gradual ending of the peculiar institution in his "Memorandum on an African Colony for Freed Slaves" which said in part,
James Madison became more philosophical in some notes he wrote for a newspaper article he was working on,
Early in his career James Madison wrote Edmund Randolph that he wanted "to depend as little as possible on the labor of slaves."18 Forced to abandon his efforts to live free of slavery and the plantation system in the 1790's, Madison continued to do what he could to lessen its degradations and harshness.
James Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a Quaker widow, in 1794. Her parents freed their slaves before moving the family to Philadelphia, so Dolley grew up with anti-slavery sentiments. Historians cannot help but wonder about her influence on Madison's thought. This author cannot find any direct evidence that she did; however, she may have encouraged him in the formation and clarifying of his own plan.
Despite his reluctance to accept African-Americans in the country after they were freed in 1800 he received as a guest the eccentric former slave, Christopher McPherson (who at times called himself McPherson, Son of Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.) The Madisons received him with a letter of introduction from Thomas Jefferson. While visiting with the Madisons, McPherson "sat at Table Even[in]g & morn[in]g with Mr. M his lady and company & enjoyed a full share of the Convers[ation]."19
Historian Matthew T. Mellon noticed a curious gap in Madison's letters. No mention of the slave-trade or slavery is found for a period of nearly twenty years, between the early 1790's and the end of the slave trade in 1808. This can be explained, in Mellon's opinion, on the ground that no slave problem existed at the time. The Constitution had made the slave trade legal in three states (Georgia and the Carolinas) and the rest of the country was patiently waiting until 1808 to do away with it all together.20 In 1810 Madison sent a dispatch to the American Minister in Great Britain, William Pinkney, which endorsed the British condemnation of an American slave ship and rejecting the owners complaint that they were slaves under American law. Madison suggested that possibly the negroes21 could be assumed to be passengers held against their will in false imprisonment. After slave trade was made illegal in 1808 there were still abuses of the law. In 1816, Madison, as President, urged Congress to make even further attempts to bring about a total suppression of the slave trade.
Madison's private secretary, Edward Coles, was a strong believer in ending slavery. He constantly prodded Madison to take a tougher stand against it.
Edward Coles freed his slaves shortly after James Madison retired from the presidency in 1817. Coles prepared his slaves for their emancipation by giving each of them some land in Illinois, and helped them to get started in farming. Coles' efforts pleased Madison, however, their future in freedom concerned James Madison. He told Edward Coles in a 1819 letter,
Madison also wished Coles could change the color of the skin of his freed slaves; without that, "they seem destined to a privation of that moral rank and those social participation which give to freedom more than half its value."24
James Madison provided political advice for countless individuals, during the years after he left the presidency. Many of these people sought his advice on the problem of slavery, especially during the Missouri Crisis. Robert J. Evans wrote Madison seeking his recommendation on how best to bring about an end to the peculiar institution. James Madison outlined his beliefs on the future of the African-Americans. He said that the emancipation of the slaves should be gradual, equitable and satisfactory to all involved, master and slave, and should be consistent with the deep-rooted prejudices of the country.
To the problem of where the money should come to pay for the compensation of the masters and the removal of the freed population, Madison suggested that the sale of 200 million acres of Western territory at three dollars an acre to raise the necessary funds for the task.
The Missouri crisis of 1819-1821 put Madison's convictions on the slavery issue to a severe test. In letters to the President and several other correspondents, Madison denied that Congress had the power to attach an antislavery condition to the admission of a new state, or to control the migration of slaves within the several States. James Madison wrote a letter on this subject to Robert Walsh in November of 1819. He responded to Walsh's question about the founding fathers intentions in the Constitution's clause that states "the migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, . . ."26 Madison responded by saying as a matter of compromise the Northern States agreed to extend the slave trade for twenty years, because the Southern States never would have agreed to a plan that ended importation. Madison thought that most undeniably the term "migration" meant exclusively from other countries and not within the several States. Madison reiterated this point to his successor, James Monroe the following February. More tentatively, he questioned the constitutionality of laws excluding slavery from the national territories, despite the sweeping grant of federal power in the territorial clause of the Northwest Ordinance as re-enacted by the First Congress. His strained legal and historical argument on this last point was hardly strengthened by the prediction that the expansion and dispersion of slavery would improve the condition of the slaves and hasten the end of the institution of slavery. Madison offered that same argument to Monroe in another letter written in February of 1820 in which he said,
... I have certainly felt all the influence that cd justly flow from a conviction, that an uncontrouled [sic.] dispersion of the slaves now in the U. S. was not only best for the nation, but most favorable to the slaves, also both as to their prospects for emancipation, and as to their condition in the mean time.27
Madison and Jefferson surmised that the real issue in the Missouri debates was not the spread of slavery across the Mississippi but rather the creation of a sectional party by disguised Federalist who wanted to appeal to Northern antislavery sentiments in order to divide and conquer the Republicans. Madison and Jefferson both warned the ultimate price of injecting slavery into national politics would be the eventual disruption of the Union.28
Madison refused to be drawn into the controversy over the Missouri Compromise. He offered the parable of Jonathan and Mary Bull in which he likened the Missouri controversy to two parents trying to divide different kinds of land between their children. Each of the children were trying to remove a black stain on their skin without knowing how. Mary tells Jonathan that he should be patient with her efforts to remove the stain from her skin. He once had the same black stains all over his body and had been able to remove them. Jonathan wanted to sue Mary for divorce over the problem. She asked him would not the divorce hurt him just as much as she would. Because if the tenants on Mary's lands produce more, they are able to sell more. In turn they will buy more from Jonathan. Jonathan's tenants benefit from the marriage by being able to ship Mary's tenants cargo abroad without tariffs. This may not be the case if there is a divorce.
Numerous visitors made their way to Montpelier during Madison's retirement years. One of the topics of discussion during most of those visits was slavery. General Marquis de Lafayette paid two visits to the Madisons during his return trip to America in 1824 and 1825. During one of Lafayette's visits to Montpelier, Madison invited a group of nearby farmers to join them one evening for dinner. The conversation centered on Lafayette's favorite subject, the ending of slavery. The conversation must have been satisfactory to Lafayette's private secretary who observed,
Lafayette spent hours visiting with slaves at Montpelier. Though full of praise regarding Madison's humanity towards the slaves, Lafayette made it clear to his old friend that their fifty years of joint efforts could not be reconciled with the existence of human slaves on the very plantations of those who talked loudly of human freedom.
Among the many visitors to Montpelier during Madison's retirement years was the radical Frances (Fanny) Wright, a friend and associate of Lafayette. She came to Montpelier to seek the advice of the elder statesman on the plan for ending slavery. Wright called for a series of communities to be established across the South which would support themselves through the cooperative labors of slaves, under white management. The "slaves" would raise the funds to pay the cost of their emancipation. Her model community was Nashoba, in western Tennessee. Wright designed it to demonstrate the practicality of her plan. The best Madison was able to muster was a less than sincere response of praise of the more conservative elements of her plan, those consistent with his own ideas He politely discouraged her more radical ideas. In 1828, Madison wrote Lafayette to tactfully inform him that Miss Wright could expect no further endorsements from him or any other reasonable American.
In 1832, John H. B. Latrobe visited Montpelier and left a wonderful description of part of the Montpelier mansion. He recorded some of his conversation with the elder statesman.
Another visitor to the Madison home during these years was Harriet Martineau, an English woman who traveled around America and recorded what she saw. She observed that,
The sale of the twelve slaves that Martineau refers to took place shortly before her visit. James Madison was reluctant to go through with the transaction; it "gave him much trouble."32 He did so only because the sale was to a family member, William Taylor, and he had the consent of the slaves involved. It is not difficult to believe that Madison had the consent of his slaves for the sale. At that time some Virginia slaves no longer considered it to be that bad to be sold "down the river." Conditions in the deep South were often better than the conditions on the farms of Virginia's increasingly impoverished planters. Madison's situation was no better than average either, conditions forced him to sell off section after section of the Montpelier estate in order to keep himself from being involved in the trade of human beings, a trade he hated. The sale of the land only made matters worse for the elder statesman because he had to feed his slave population from an ever decreasing number of acres. Unfortunately the two thousand dollars that Madison made from the sale had to be turned over to repay a debt to a friend.
Charles Ingersol was one of the last visitors to Montpelier before Madison's death. Ingersol said that Madison,
spoke often and anxiously of slave property as the worst possible for profit, unless employed in manufactures, as he is sure it will be to advantage ... Among the deplorable effects of the abolition excitement, he considers, first that in teaching southern people to imagine that slavery is right and useful, a change of opinion suddenly arises, and he referred to Governor McDuffie's message in proof of it; secondly, deteriorating the condition of the poor slaves, whose bondage is embittered by laws and measures intended to counteract the ill-timed and ill-directed to put an end to it.33
William Thornton urged the idea of a society that would raise funds to colonize free African-Americans in some distant part of the world in a 1804 pamphlet. He dedicated the pamphlet to James Madison. Thornton named this group the American Colonization Society. James Madison saw one major problem with the organization, it did not provide any means of emancipating and colonizing the enslaved blacks. Even though Madison did not totally agree with Thornton's plan he challenged its critics to come up with a better one. In 1821, James Madison still had doubts as to whether or not the American Colonization Society could do the job required. He expressed these concerns to Lafayette in a letter that said,
The negro slavery is, as you justly complain, a sad blot on our free country, though a very ungracious subject of reproaches from the quarter which has been the most lavish of them. No satisfactory plan has yet been devised for taking out the stain.34
James Madison's last public service was as a delegate to the second Virginia Constitutional Convention. The convention honored him as being the only member present to attend the first convention more than a half-century before. James Madison worked as a force for compromise between the Eastern and Western factions at the convention. He offered a compromise plan for a method of determining representation in the State. His plan can be seen in this excerpt from the debates of the convention,
To come nearly to the subject before the Committee, viz: that particular feature in our community which calls for a peculiar division in the basis of our Government , I mean the coloured [sic.] part of our population. It is apprehended, if the power of the Commonwealth shall be in the hands of the majority, who have no interest in this species of property, that, from that facility with which it may be oppressed by excessive taxation, injustice may be done to its owners. It would seem therefore, if we can incorporate that interest into the basis of our system, it will be the most apposite and effectual security that can be devised. Such an arrangement is recommended to me by many very important considerations. It is due to justice: due to humanity: due to truth: to the sympathies of our nature: in fine, to our character as a people, both abroad and at home, that they should be considered as much as possible, in the light of human beings ; and not as mere property. As such they are acted upon by our laws; and have an interest in our laws. They nay be considered as making a part, tho a degraded part of the families to which they belong. If they had the complexions of the Serfs in the north of Europe, or of the Villeins, formerly in England; in other terms if they were of our own complexion, much of the difficulty would be removed. But the mere circumstance of complexion cannot of complexion cannot deprive them of the character of men. The Federal number, as it is called [the three-fifths clause] is particularly recommended to attention in forming a basis of representation, by its simplicity, its certainty, its stability, and its permanency...35
In the midst of the nullification crisis and the antislavery agitation, The Colonization Society of Virginia boldly made a request of the Virginia State legislature for public money to aid the Colony of Liberia. "As members of the society they [Madison, Monroe and John Marshall] would express no views on slavery, but 'as citizens and lovers of Virginia, we await in common with our whole community . . . relief from an oppressive evil.'"36 The events of the early 1830's dimmed Madison's hopes for any state action to abolish slavery. This led him to accept the presidency of the American Colonization Society.
James Madison made practically no response to Nat Turner's Revolt; however, just four months later he saw the hopes for colonization on the rise. These hopes were expressed in a letter to the fifteenth anniversary meeting of the American Colonization Society, which was held on January 16, 1832 in the hall of the House of Representatives. Archibald Alexander made the following report of that meeting,
In 1833, Thomas Dew, a William and Mary professor, sent James Madison a pamphlet he had written. In the pamphlet Dew argued that the tariffs were the cause of the South's ills and that slavery was a great bounty. James Madison responded by pointing out that slavery was the cause of the South's economic woes; slavery led to poor farming practices and the exploitative development of lands. James Madison made a great case for the reasons why the efforts of the Colonization Society were so important. Madison admits it is a difficult problem. The major problems were finding an asylum for the free blacks and replacing the labor force that would be removed. Madison foresaw the later problem solved by the natural increase in population and immigration. James Madison blamed the thoughts of people like Dew and McDuffie on the Northern abolitionist. He thought that their urging of an immediate end to slavery was the cause for Southerners defense of slavery.
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, Dolley, was a concern for him. He wanted to free his slaves, but how? As a matter of principle they could not remain where they were if free, and they were deathly afraid of going to Liberia. Madison was also aware that a majority of his slaves were either too old or too young to have withstood the trip. James Madison's secretary and personal friend, Edward Coles, wanted him to include a provision in his will that would free his slaves, as George Washington had done, in order to improve posterity's view of him. Drew McCoy concludes that James Madison chose the 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,
When the American Colonization Society found out about the death of James Madison their reaction was recorded in their minutes:
After Madison's death, in 1836, Dolley Madison returned to Washington to live out the last years of her life. Financial conditions forced her to sell Montpelier in two parts (1842 and 1844). In order to keep the slave families together Dolley 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. The historical record is not clear whether this was an error of omission or commission.
James Madison worked throughout his life to bring about an end to the institution of slavery. Once he developed his plan he stayed with it despite becoming discouraged by its failure. His plan was good but failed because of its impracticality. A curious factor in Madison's writings on slavery is his constant reference to African-Americans in descriptions as being peculiar and those peculiarities as the reason that they could not be emancipated without be removed to some distant region beyond the territory intended for white inhabitation. It is difficult to tell whether James Madison was the ultimate racist or insightful enough to foresee the racial problems the Country faced after the Civil War until today and wished a "better situation" for the black people.
Copyright �2000 Kenneth M.
� Copyright 2000 The James Madison Memorial Foundation|
All Rights Reserved