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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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"He had a native intelligence he drew on," she said. " but he was also influenced by James Madison and his world of ideas to appreciate that his yearning for freedom was a right of man, a gift of nature."
Jennings was 48 when he finally gained his freedom, more than 10 years after Madison's death.
One account, published in an abolitionist newspaper, said Mrs. Madison wouldn't free Jennings as her husband had desired. Increasingly strapped for money, she sold him to an insurance agent, who then sold him to Webster. The New England statesman immediately freed Jennings, allowing him to work off the debt as his household servant, Taylor said. Jennings worked for the U.S. Pension Office, bought property, and reunited his children in the capital.
About this same time, Jennings helped one of Mrs. Madison's slaves try to escape, hidden aboard the schooner Pearl with 75 others. The failed attempt and the trial of the ship's crew prompted leading Americans to debate slavery. President Millard Fillmore pardoned the operators of the Pearl.
KIN PRAISE CHARACTER
Discovering such stories has been a revelation for some of Jennings' descendants.
Yet Jordan, his great-great-great-granddaughter, believes they all fit with his character. "He had a generosity of spirit, kindness, compassion," she said. "He continued to see Mrs. Madison for years after he was freed, even though she had hired him out to earn money for her."
When Dolley Madison moved back to Washington from Orange County and was forced to depend on friends such as Webster for food and finances, Jennings helped support the former first lady with "small sums from own pocket," his memoir states.
Jordan, 66, is proud that her ancestor's deeds are being recognized by the nation's historians.
Hearing people's recent reactions to his life story has been "wonderful," she said.
"I hope it helps fill in the blanks, and inspires lots of African-Americans to write down their stories," Jordan said. "It's really important for people to record these incredible examples so that people have an in-depth understanding of what it's taken to build our country and our society."
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