James Madison and Slavery
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James Madison and Slavery

 by 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,

[Mr. Madison] often told the story, that one day riding home from court with old Tom Barbour (father of Governor [James] Barbour), they met a colored man who took off his hat. Mr. M. raised his, to the surprise of old Tom; to whom Mr. M. replied, "I never allow a negro to excel me in politeness."3

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,

I am glad to find the legislature persist in their resolution to recruit their line of the army for the war, though without deciding on the expediency of the mode under their consideration, would it not be as well to liberate and make soldiers at once of the blacks themselves as to make them instruments for enlisting white Soldiers? It wd. certainly be more consonant to the principles of liberty which ought never to be loss sight of in a contest for liberty.4

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,

I . . . cannot think of punishing him by transportation merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood, and have proclaimed so often to be the right & worthy the pursuit, of every human being.5

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,

Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves. So long a term will be more dishonorable to the National character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.8

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,

Mr. Madison thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men. The reason of duties did not hold, as slaves are not like merchandize, consumed, &c.9

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

It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period it will receive considerable discouragement from the Federal government and be totally abolished, by a concurrence of the few States which continue the unnatural traffic in the prohibitory example which has been given by so great a majority of the Union. Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppression of their European brethren!11

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 to them and to us. We are not in a worse situation than before. That traffic is prohibited by our laws, and we may continue the prohibition. The union in general is not in a worse situation. Under the old system it would be continued forever.

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

I can not but consider the application as likely to harm rather than good. It may worth your own consideration whether it might not produce successful attempts to withdraw the privilege now allowed to individuals, of giving freedom to slaves. It would at least clog it with a condition that the persons should be removed from the Country ....14

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,

Without enquiring into the practicability or the most proper means of establishing a Settlement of freed blacks on the Coast of Africa, it may be remarked as one motive to the benevolent experiment that if such an asylum was provided, it might prove a great encouragement to manumission in the Southern parts of the U. S. and even afford the best hope yet presented of putting an end to the slavery in which not less than 600,000 unhappy negroes are now involved.

In all the Southern States of N. American, the laws permit masters, under certain precautions to manumit their slaves. But the continuance of such a permission in some of the States is rendered precarious by the ill effects suffered from freemen who retain the vices and habits of slaves. The same consideration becomes an objection with many humane masters agst. an exertion of their legal right of freeing their slaves. It is found in fact that neither the good of the Society, nor the happiness of the individuals restored to freedom is promoted by such a change in their condition.

In order to render this change eligible as well to the Society as to the slaves . . . should result from the act of manumission. This is rendered impossible by the prejudices of the Whites, prejudices which . . . must be considered as permanent and insuperable.

It only remains then that some proper external receptacle be provided for the slaves who obtain their liberty.16

James Madison became more philosophical in some notes he wrote for a newspaper article he was working on,

In proportion as slavery prevails in a State, the Government, however democratic in name, must be aristocratic in fact. The power lies in a part instead of the whole; in the hands of property, not in numbers. All the antient [sic.] popular government, were for this reason aristocracies. The majority were slaves. Of the residue a part were in the Country and did not attend the assemblies, a part were poor and tho in the city, could not spare the time to attend. The power, was exercised for the most part by the rich and easy. Aristotle . . . defines a Citizen of member of the sovereignty, to be one who is sufficiently free from all private cares, to devote himself exclusively to the service of his Country. . . . The Southern States . . . are on the same principle aristocracies. In Virginia the aristocratic character is increased by the rule of suffrage, which a freehold in land excludes nearly half the free inhabitants, and must exclude a greater proportion, as the population increases.17

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.

One day, "seeing a gangs of Negroes, some in irons, on their way to a southern market." Coles taunted the President, "by congratulating him, as the Chief of our great Republic, that he was not then accompanied by a Foreign Minister and thus saved the deep mortification of witnessing such a revolting sight in the presence of the representative of a nation, less boastful perhaps of its regard for the rights of man, but more observant of them.22

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,

with the habits of the slave, and without the instruction, the property, or the employments of a freeman, the manumitted blacks instead of, instead of deriving advantage from the partial benevolence of their Masters, furnish arguments against the general efforts in their behalf.23

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.

That it ought, like remedies for other deeprooted and wide-spread evils, to be gradual, is so obvious that there seems to be no difference of opinion on that point.

To be equitable & satisfactory, the consent of both the Master & the slave should be obtained. That of the Master will require a provision in the plan for compensating a loss of what he held as property guarantied by the laws, and recognised [sic.] by the Constitution. That of the slave, requires that his condition in a state of freedom, be preferable in his own estimation, to his actual one in a state of bondage.

To be consistent with the existing and probably unalterable prejudices in the U. S. the freed blacks ought to be permanently removed beyond the region occupied or allotted to a White population.

The views of the Society are limited to the case of blacks already free, or who may be gratuitously emancipated. To provide a commensurate remedy for the evil, the plan must be extended to the great Mass [sic.] of blacks, and must embrace a fund sufficient to induce the Master as well as the slave to concur in it.25

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,

It seems to me that slavery cannot subsist much longer in Virginia; for the principle is condemned by all enlightened men; and when public opinion condemns a principle, its consequences cannot long continue.29

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.

He spoke much of Colonization; took an interest in hearing what Maryland had done; regretted that the interest excited in the Virginia legislature at its last session seemed in a great degree to have died away, but considered that the scheme must and would go on.30

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,

He talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging, without limitation or hesitation, all the evils with which it has ever been charged. He told me the black population increases far faster than the white; and that the licentiousness only stops short of the destruction of the race; every slave girl being expected to be a mother by the time she is fifteen. He assumed from this, I cannot make out why, that the negroes must go somewhere, and pointed out how the free states discourage the settlement of blacks; how Canada disagrees with them; how Hayti shuts them out; so that Africa is their only refuge. He did not assign any reason they should not remain where they are when freed. ... He had parted with some of his best land to feed the increasing numbers [of Madison's own slave population], and yet been obliged to sell a dozen of his slaves the preceding week. He observed the whole Bible is against negro slavery; but the clergy do not preach this , and the people do not see it. ... He accounted for his selling his slaves by mentioning their horror of going to Liberia, which he admitted to be prevalent among the blacks, and which appears to me decisive as to the unnaturalness of the scheme.31

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,

The Hon. Charles F. Mercer, one of the vice-presidents, took the chair.

Among the earliest communicatioas [sic.] made to this meeting, were letters from Lafayette, from James Madison, and from John Marshall. ... After mentioning the difficulty he [Madison] now found to use the pen, he says, "I may observe, in brief, that the society had always my good wishes, though with hopes of its success less sanguine than were entertained by others, found to be better judges; and that I feel the greatest pleasure at the progress already made the society, and the encouragement to encounter remaining difficulties, . . . Many circumstances, at the present moment, seem to concur in brightening the prospects of the society, and cherishing the hope that the time will come, when the dreadful calamity which has long afflicted our country and filled so many with despair, will be gradually removed, and by means consistent with justice, peace and the general satisfaction: thus giving to our country the full enjoyment of the blessings of liberty, and to the world the full benefit of its example. I never considered the main difficulty of the great work as lying in the deficiency of emancipations, but in an inadequacy of the asylums for a growing mass of population, and in the great expense in removing it to its new home.

Sincerely wishing an increasing success to the labours [sic.] of the Society, I pray you to be assured of my esteem, and to accept my friendly salutations."37

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,

I give and bequeath my ownership in the negroes and people of colour [sic.] 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 misbehaviour [sic.]; except that the infant children may be sold with their parent who consents for them to be sold.38

When the American Colonization Society found out about the death of James Madison their reaction was recorded in their minutes:

The sensibilities of the nation were painfully excited in May 1836, by intelligence that James Madison was ill. On the 27th of June he dictated a letter to Professor George Tucker. The letter was signed and franked by himself. On the following day he died as if in a gentle slumber. Mr. Madison was a strenuous and active friend of the Colonization Society. We subjoin the proceedings of the American Colonization Society on the occasion of his death.

The following preamble and resolutions were unanimously adopted:

Amongst the illustrious men to whom, under Divine Providence, the people of this great and prosperous Republic are indebted for their national existence, and for all the blessings of a wise, free, and happy form of government, not a name deserves to be held in more grateful remembrance than that of James Madison. Participating as this Board sincerely does, in the sorrow of their fellow Citizens for a common loss, the members of the American Colonization Society are called upon in an especial manner to mourn an event which has deprived them of the President and honored head of their Institution, his warm and constant attachment to which was in consonance with the wisdom and philanthropy which distinguished him through life.39

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. Clark
All Rights Reserved


Primary Sources:

Chastellux, Marquis de. Travels in North American the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782, 2 vols. Howard C. Rice, ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, for the Institute for Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va., 1963.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers. Clinton Rossiter, ed. New York: New American Library, 1961.

[Ingersol, Charles]. "Visit to Mr. Madison," Washington Globe. 12 August 1836, [photocopy without page number MONARCH, (MONtpelier ReseARCH) files].

"James Madison's Attitude toward the Negro: Advice given Negroes a Century Ago." The Journal of Negro History. VI (January, 1921): 74-102.

Jennings, Paul. A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison. Brooklyn: George C. Beadle, 1865.

Levasseur, Auguste. Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825: or Journals of Travels in the United States. vol. 1. Translated from the French. New York: White, Galaher & White; et als., 1829.

Madison, James. The Papers of James Madison. Hutchinson, William T. et als, eds. Chicago and Charlottesville: University of Chicago Press and University Press of Virginia, 1962-____.

________. The Writings of James Madison, comprising His Public Papers, and His Private Correspondence, Including Numerous Letters and Documents Now for the First Time Printed. Vols VII - IX. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1908-10.

________. Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, Fourth President of the United States, 4 Vols. Published by the Order of Congress. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1865.

________. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convenztion of 1787, Reported by James Madison. Bicentennial ed., with introduction by Adrienne Koch, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., p. d.

Martineau, Harriet. Retrospect of Western Travel, 2 vol. London: Saunders and Otley, 1838; reprinted 1948.

Miller, Ann L., ed. Visitors to Mr. Madison: Accounts of Early Nineteenth Century Visitors to Montpelier. Unfinished edition of the Montpelier Monograph Series, ____.

Secondary Sources:

Alexander, Archibald. A History of Colonization on the Western Coast of Africa. Philadelphia: William S. Martin, 1869; reprint, New York: Negro University Press, 1969.

Berkeley, Edmund, Jr. "Prophet Without Honor: Christopher McPherson, Free Person of Color." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 77 (April 1969): 180-90.

Brant, Irving. James Madison, 6 vols. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1941-61.

Eaton, Clement. A History of the Old South: The Emergence of a Reluctant Nation, 3d ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1975.

Grinnan, A. G. "The Burning of Eve." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 3 (January, 1896): 308-10.

Ketcham, Ralph. James Madison: A Biography. New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., 1971; reprint, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990.

Koch, Adrienne. Madison's "Advice to My Country". Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.

McCoy, Drew R. The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Mellon, Matthew T. Early American Views on Negro Slavery: From the Letters and Papers of the Founders of the Republic. Boston: Meador Publishing Company, 1934.

Meyers, Marvin, ed. The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1981.

Peterson, Merrill D., ed. James Madison: A Biography in His Own Words. The Founding Fathers Series. New York: Newsweek, 1974.

Rutland, Robert Allen. The Presidency of James Madison. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.

________. James Madison: The Founding Father. New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., 1987.

Scott, W. W. A History of Orange County, Virginia: From its Formation in 1734 (O. S.) to the end of Reconstruction in 1870; compiled mainly from Original Records. Richmond, Va.: Everett Waddey, Co., 1907; reprint, Berryville, Va.: Chesapeake Book Co., 1962.

Slaughter, Philip. The Virginian History of African Colonization. Freeport, N. Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.

Visit the James Madison Museum Homepage. Many of the sources in the bibliography above have links provided. These are either to an online source for the material or to Amazon.com Books where the books may be purchased. The James Madison Museum is an Amazon.com Associate and receives a percentage of all sales through these links. For other books on James Madison, the Constitution, War of 1812 and Madison's writings,including many wonderful books written after this paper, visit the James Madison Museum's Online Bookstore.


1 W. W. Scott, A History of Orange County, Virginia: From its Formation in 1734 (O. S.) to the end of Reconstruction in 1870; compiled mainly from Original Records, (Richmond, Va.: Everett Waddey Co., 1907; reprint, Berryville, Va.: Chesapeake Book Co., 1962), 134.

2 Irving Brant, James Madison, 6 vols., (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1941-61), 1:44. [Hereafter cited as Brant, (volume : page)].

3 Paul Jennings, A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison, (Brooklyn: George C. Beadle, 1865), 19-20.

4 William T. Hutchinson, et als, eds., The Papers of James Madison 18 vols. to date (Chicago and Charlottesville: University of Chicago Press and University Press of Virginia, 1962-____), 2:209. [Hereafter cited as Papers, (volume : page)].

5 Papers, 7:304.

6 Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North American the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782, Howard C. Rice, ed. 2 vols. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, for the Institute for Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va., 1963), 653, [from footnote by George Grieve eighteenth century translator].

7 Papers, 9:351.

8 James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, Reported by James Madison. Bicentennial ed., with introduction by Adrienne Koch (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., p. d.), 530.

9 Madison, Debates, 532.

10 Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, Clinton Rossiter, ed., (New York: New American Library, 1961), 238.

11 Hamilton, 266.

12 Papers, 11:150.

13 Madison's note added later here and in the next sentence after "condition", "*it so happened." The Virginia Legislature passed a bill in 1808, requiring that all freed slaves be removed from the state within twelve months.

14 Papers, 14:91.

15 Papers, 13:302-03.

16 Papers, 12:437-38.

17 Papers, 14:163.

18 James Madison, The Writings of James Madison, comprising His Public Papers, and His Private Correspondence, Including Numerous Letters and Documents Now for the First Time Printed. Vols. II, VII - IX, (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1908-10) 2:154. [Hereafter cited as Hunt, (volume : page)].

19 Edmund Berkeley, Jr. "Prophet Without Honor: Christopher McPherson, Free Person of Color," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 77 (April 1969), 184.

20 Matthew T. Mellon, Early American Views on Negro Slavery: From the Letters and Papers of the Founders of the Republic, (Boston: Meador Publishing Company, 1934), 129.

21 The term "negro" is used here to remain consistent with Madison's terminology.

22 Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography, (New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., 1971; reprint, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990), 551.

23 Hunt, 8:455.

24 Ibid.

25 Hunt, 8:439-40.

26 Constitution, art. I, sec. 9.

27 Hunt, 9:25.

28 Marvin Meyers, ed., The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison, (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1981), 319-20.

29 Auguste Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825: or Journals of Travels in the United States, vol. 1. Translated from the French. (New York: White, Galaher & White; et als., 1829), 222.

30 Ann L. Miller, ed., Visitors to Mr. Madison: Accounts of Early Nineteenth Century Visitors to Montpelier, (Unfinished publication of the Montpelier Monograph Series, ____), __.

31 Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, 2 vol. (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838; reprinted 1948), 191-2.

32 letter, John Willis to Edward Coles, December 19,1855, quoted in; Drew R. McCoy, The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 256.

33 [Charles Ingersol], "A Visit to Mr. Madison," Washington Globe, [un-numbered page from photocopy MONARCH (MONtpelier ReseARCH) files].

34 "James Madison's Attitude toward the Negro: Advice given Negroes a Century Ago." The Journal of Negro History. 6 (January, 1921), 85.

35 Merrill D. Peterson, ed., James Madison: A Biography in His Own Words, The Founding Fathers Series, (New York: Newsweek, 1974), 391.

36 Brant, 6:509.

37 Archibald Alexander, A History of Colonization on the Western Coast of Africa, (Philadelphia: William S. Martin, 1869; reprint, New York: Negro University Press, 1969), 364-65.

38 McCoy, 318.

39 Philip Slaughter, The Virginian History of African Colonization, (Freeport, N. Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970), 73.

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