American presidents have a complicated history of slavery. Four of the first five presidents owned slaves while serving as president. Of the next five presidents, two owned slaves while the president and two had owned slaves earlier in life. As late as 1850 an American president was the owner of a large number of slaves while serving in office. This is a look at the presidents who owned slaves. But first, it’s easy to dispense with the two early presidents who did not own slaves, an illustrious father, and son from Massachusetts:
John Adams: The second president did not approve of slavery and never owned slaves. He and his wife Abigail were offended when the federal government moved to the new city of Washington and slaves were constructing public buildings, including their new residence, the Executive Mansion (which we now call the White House).
John Quincy Adams: The son of the second president was a lifelong opponent of slavery. Following his single term as president in the 1820s, he served in the House of Representatives, where he was often a vocal advocate for the end of slavery. For years Adams battled against the gag rule, which prevented any discussion of slavery on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Four of the first five presidents were products of a Virginia society in which slavery was a part of everyday life and a major component of the economy. So while Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were all considered patriots who valued liberty, they all took slavery for granted.
George Washington: The first president owned slaves for most of his life, beginning at the age of 11 when he inherited ten enslaved farm workers upon the death of his father. During his adult life at Mount Vernon, Washington relied on a varied workforce of enslaved people. In 1774, the number of slaves at Mount Vernon stood at 119. In 1786, after the Revolutionary War, but before Washington’s two terms as president, there were more than 200 slaves on the plantation, including a number of children.
In 1799, following Washington’s tenure as president, there were 317 slaves living and working at Mount Vernon. The changes in the slave population are partly due to Washington’s wife, Martha, inheriting slaves. But there are also reports that Washington purchased slaves during that period.
For most of Washington’s eight years in office, the federal government was based in Philadelphia. To skirt a Pennsylvania law that would grant a slave freedom if he or she lived within the state for six months, Washington shuttled slaves back and forth to Mount Vernon.
When Washington died his slaves were freed according to a provision in his will. However, that did not end slavery at Mount Vernon. His wife owned a number of slaves, which she did not free for another two years. And when Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, inherited Mount Vernon, a new population of slaves lived and worked on the plantation.
Thomas Jefferson: It has been calculated that Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves over the course of his life. At his estate, Monticello, there would have usually been an enslaved population of about 100 people. The estate was kept running by slave gardeners, coopers, nail makers, and even cooks who had been trained to prepare French cuisine prized by Jefferson. It was widely rumored that Jefferson had a longtime affair with Sally Hemings, a slave who was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife.
James Madison: The fourth president was born to a slave-owning family in Virginia. He owned slaves throughout his life. One of his slaves, Paul Jennings, lived in the White House as one of Madison’s servants while a teenager. Jennings holds an interesting distinction: a small book he published decades later is considered the first memoir of life in the White House. And, of course, it could also be considered a slave narrative. In A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, published in 1865, Jennings described Madison in complimentary terms. Jennings provided details about the episode in which objects from the White House, including the famous portrait of George Washington that hangs in the East Room, were taken from the mansion before the British burned it in August 1814. According to Jennings, the works of securing valuables was mostly done by the slaves, not by Dolley Madison.
James Monroe: Growing up on a Virginia tobacco farm, James Monroe would have been surrounded by slaves who worked the land. He inherited a slave named Ralph from his father, and as an adult, at his own farm, Highland, he owned about 30 slaves. Monroe thought colonization, the resettlement of slaves outside the United States, would be the eventual solution to the issue of slavery. He believed in the mission of the American Colonization Society, which was formed just before Monroe took office. The capital of Liberia, which was founded by American slaves who settled in Africa, was named Monrovia in honor of Monroe.
Andrew Jackson: During the four years John Quincy Adams lived in the White House, there were no slaves living on the property. That changed when Andrew Jackson, from Tennessee, took office in March 1829. Jackson harbored no qualms about slavery. His business pursuits in the 1790s and early 1800s included slave trading, a point later raised by opponents during his political campaigns of the 1820s. Jackson first bought a slave in 1788, while a young lawyer and land speculator. He continued trading slaves, and a considerable part of his fortune would have been his ownership of human property. When he bought his plantation, The Hermitage, in 1804, he brought nine slaves with him. By the time he became president, the slave population, through purchase and reproduction, had grown to about 100. Taking up residence in the Executive Mansion (as the White House was known at the time), Jackson brought household slaves from The Hermitage, his estate in Tennessee. After his two terms in office, Jackson returned to The Hermitage, where he continued to own a large population of slaves. At the time of his death, Jackson owned approximately 150 slaves.
Martin Van Buren: As a New Yorker, Van Buren seems an unlikely slave owner. And, he eventually ran on the ticket of the Free-Soil Party, a political party of the late 1840s opposed to the spread of slavery. Yet slavery had been legal in New York when Van Buren was growing up, and his father owned a small number of slaves. As an adult, Van Buren owned one slave, who escaped. Van Buren seems to have made no effort to locate him. When he was finally discovered after ten years and Van Buren was notified, he allowed him to remain free.
William Henry Harrison: Though he campaigned in 1840 as a frontier character who lived in a log cabin, William Henry Harrison was born at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia. His ancestral home had been worked by slaves for generations, and Harrison would have grown up in considerable luxury which was supported by slave labor. He inherited slaves from his father, but owing to his particular circumstances, he did not own slaves for most of his life. As a young son of the family, he would not inherit the family’s land. So Harrison had to find a career and eventually settled on the military. As military governor of Indiana, Harrison sought to make slavery legal in the territory, but that was opposed by the Jefferson administration. William Henry Harrison’s slave-owning was decades behind him by the time he was elected president. And as he died in the White House a month after moving in, he had no impact on the issue of slavery during his very brief term in office.
John Tyler: The man who became president upon Harrison’s death was a Virginian who had grown up in a society accustomed to slavery, and who owned slaves while president. Tyler was representative of the paradox, or hypocrisy, of someone who claimed that slavery was evil while actively perpetuating it. During his time as president, he owned about 70 slaves who worked on his estate in Virginia. Tyler’s one term in office was rocky and ended in 1845. Fifteen years later, he participated in efforts to avoid the Civil War by reaching some sort of compromise which would have allowed slavery to continue. After the war began he was elected to the legislature of the Confederate States of America, but he died before he took his seat. Tyler has a unique distinction in American history: As he was actively involved in the rebellion of the slave states when he died, he is the only American president whose death was not observed with official mourning in the nation’s capital.
James K. Polk: The man whose 1844 nomination as a dark horse candidate surprised even himself was a slave owner from Tennessee. On his estate, Polk owned about 25 slaves. He was seen as being tolerant of slavery, yet not fanatical about the issue (unlike politicians of the day such as South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun). That helped Polk secure the Democratic nomination at a time when discord over slavery was beginning to have a major impact on American politics. Polk did not live long after leaving office, and he still owned slaves at the time of his death. His slaves were to be freed when his wife died, though events, specifically the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment, interceded to free them long before his wife’s death decades later.
Zachary Taylor: The last president to own slaves while in office was a career soldier who had become a national hero in the Mexican War. Zachary Taylor also was a wealthy landowner and he possessed about 150 slaves. As the issue of slavery was beginning to split the nation, he found himself straddling the position of owning a large number of slaves while also seeming to lean against the spread of slavery. The Compromise of 1850, which essentially delayed the Civil War for a decade, was worked out on Capitol Hill while Taylor was president. But he died in office in July 1850, and the legislation really took effect during the term of his successor, Millard Fillmore (a New Yorker who had never owned slaves).
After Fillmore, the next president was Franklin Pierce, who had grown up in New England and had no history of slave ownership. Following Pierce, James Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian, is believed to have purchased slaves whom he set free and employed as servants. Abraham Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, had owned slaves during his earlier life in Tennessee. But, of course, slavery became officially illegal during his term of office with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The president who followed Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, had, of course, been a hero of the Civil War. And Grant’s advancing armies had freed a vast number of slaves during the final years of the war. Yet Grant, in the 1850s, had owned a slave.
In the late 1850s, Grant lived with his family at White Haven, a Missouri farm which belonged to his wife’s family, the Dents. The family had owned slaves who worked on the farm, and in the 1850s about 18 slaves were living on the farm. After leaving the Army, Grant managed the farm. And he acquired one slave, William Jones, from his father in law (there are conflicting accounts about how that came to happen). In 1859 Grant freed Jones.