Remembering the People Who Helped to Shape This Country: Paul Jennings

The White House Back, Red and Black Ink, LLC 2015.

Many people did the work that helped make the country function--people who were not given the respect and remembrance they were due.

Paul Jennings was born in 1799...enslaved to James and Dolley Madison, in Virginia.  

In 1808 James Madison was elected President of the United States and Paul Jennings, still a boy, moved to the White House with Dolley and James Madison.

At the time the Madisons moved into the White House the East Room was not finished and Pennsylvania Avenue was not yet paved.

It was a tenuous time for the country as friction between the United States and Great Britain was on the rise and the country was, again, on the brink of war.

When Jennings was still in the early stages of his adolescence, James Madison asked Congress to declare war on Great Britain--on June 1, 1812. 

Soon after the declaration, James Madison visited his farm in Virginia and as his "body servant" Paul Jennings accompanied him.

News of a surrender by General Hull surprised Madison and he hurried back to Washington, D.C. As the War of 1812 continued people became afraid that the British would attack the city. 

In August of 1814 the British had a strong presence in the Patuxent River, as they made their way toward Bladensburg, MD--just outside of Washington, D.C.

"Armstrong has ordered a retreat!"

In preparation for the confrontation, African-Americans along with Caucasian sailors and marines were ready to defend the capital from attack. When asked whether the African-American soldiers would run "on the approach of the British," their commander strongly replied, "...they will die by their guns first."

On August 24, 1814 the Battle of Bladensburg took place.  That morning President Madison, and several of his close advisors, rode out to the battle site to see the event for themselves. 

The fighting, that day, began around eleven or twelve o'clock and the servants, who were in the White House, went about their duties as they would normally do.

Dolley Madison, assured by a general that victory was inevitable, ordered dinner to be ready by three o'clock, which was the usual time, in preparation for an evening with James Madison and some of his military staff.

Paul Jennings set the table and brought up ale, cider, and wine for the Cabinet and military men who were expected for dinner. 

However, just before three o'clock a free African-American man, who went with James Madison to Bladensburg, came riding up on his horse to the White House. 

He was waving his hat and yelled, "Clear out, clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!"

All kinds of confusion broke out.  Mrs. Madison ordered her carriage to be brought around....she then went through the dinning room and picked up whatever silver she could. She and her personal servant, Sukey, were taken in her carriage to Georgetown Heights.

Jennings was ordered to get another carriage from 14th street, a few blocks from the White House. The belief was that the British would be coming at any moment.

The servants and the workers saved the few items they could grab and made their way out of the house (including a famous painting of George Washington).

Then, a group of people off of the street, entered the White House and stole whatever valuables they could get their hands on.

The British did in fact come...some hours later.  When they arrived at the White House they ate and drank the very food and wine that Paul Jennings put out as he set the table for dinner that day.

Later on, Jennings met up with President Madison, and his advisors, at the ferry in Georgetown.

That night Paul Jennings watched as government buildings and other important areas of the city were on fire.

Mrs. Madison had been carted off to a house to stay overnight and ended up staying at a few houses before joining Mr. Madison at her brother-in-law's in D.C.

When news of peace finally came (after some time), Paul Jennings was with President Madison, his family, and his close they got the message.

Help, from His Own Pocket

After serving two terms as President of the United States, James Madison returned to his home in Virginia. When James Madison died in 1836, Paul Jennings was with him. 

As his "body servant" Jennings shaved James Madison every other day for sixteen years and tended to his personal needs. The last six months of Madison's life were challenging as he was unable to walk...Jennings continued to care for him in that condition.

On the morning of his death, Sukey (Mrs. Madison's personal servant) brought in breakfast for him, as she would normally do, but he was unable to swallow. His niece asked him "What is the matter, Uncle James?" and he replied, "Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear." He died right after saying that, with his niece and Paul Jennings by his side.

After his death, Dolley Madison fell on hard times. She was poor and often needed help to "make ends meet" before Congress bought James Madison's papers from her.

Jennings had since secured his freedom (Senator Daniel Webster purchased his freedom--Jennings had to pay Webster back at a cost of $8 per month).

Paul Jennings worked for Daniel Webster for some time and was often sent by Webster to Dolley Madison's house to give her provisions and to offer her basic necessities.

No longer a slave, Jennings would occasionally give Dolley Madison money, from his own pocket, to help her.

Paul Jennings moved back to Washington, D.C. and got a job working at the Department of the Interior. It was then that he decided to write down his experiences with the help of a friend.

Most historians view his book, A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison, as the first White House memoir.  It is a valuable source of history and it gives a first-hand account of events at the White House during the invasion of 1814.

Potomac River in the Distance Red and Black Ink, LLC 2016.

Copyright, Red and Black Ink, LLC 2014, 2017.

Unites States Department of State, Office of the Historian. Milestones: 1801-1829; War of 1812. Accessed 4-2014.

Jennings, Paul and J. B. R. A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison. 1865, Brooklyn, George C. Beadle.
About the White House: Presidents.
Accessed 4-2014. 
James Madison's Montpelier.  James Madison Biography.

Danita Smith