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Descendants of James and Dolley Madison's slave to get special view of White House where he lived, worked and rescued George Washington's portrait from British troops

 In William Woodward's mural, Paul Jennings brings a ladder as first lady Dolley Madison directs the rescue of George Washington's portrait at the White House on Aug. 24, 1814.
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Date published: 8/23/2009


"A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison" was published in 1865. A friend of Jennings wrote down his recollections "in almost his own language." Montpelier--which organized tomorrow's special White House visit--sells a copy of Jennings' memoir to support research into his life.

It is the rarest of documents from the period; few records exist about the black men and women who lived and worked at the Executive Mansion. Generally, slaves' owners paid little heed to their stories, and barred them from learning to read and write, curator Allman has noted.

But Jennings was remarkable for other reasons, according to Beth Taylor, a research associate at Montpelier, the Madisons' home in Orange County.

As James Madison's manservant, Jennings was in his orbit from age 10, when he first set eyes on the White House, until Madison died in 1836 at Montpelier at the age of 85. He shaved Madison every other day for 16 years, and said Madison was kind to his slaves. He recalled Madison as a frugal and sober man who owned only one suit and probably never "drank a quarter of brandy in his whole life."

When visitors to Montpelier hear the vivid account of Madison's final moments, it's Jennings they hear quoting the Father of the Constitution's dying words, as he tended him on his deathbed.

Jennings--who had a long life--later bought his freedom, helped plan a unsuccessful slave escape from Washington, and aided Mrs. Madison during her impoverished decades after her husband's death and the sale of their estate.


"I delight in his courage and his successful pursuit of the 'right to rise' that America promises," Taylor said yesterday. "He had what I've come to see is a remarkable set of abilities. And I admire his sensibilities."

Taylor is writing the first scholarly treatment of Jennings' reminiscences and life, to be published next year.

As did Jennings' friends, who included U.S. Sen. Daniel Webster, she praises his smarts, honesty, tact and compassion for others.

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