James Madison and slavery

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James Madison grew up on a plantation that made use of slave labor and he viewed slavery as a necessary part of the Southern economy, though he was troubled by the instability of a society that depended on a large slave population.[1] During the Revolutionary War, Madison responded to a proposal of providing slaves to soldiers as a recruitment bonus by advocating enlisting blacks in exchange for their freedom instead, writing "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 would certainly be more consonant to the principles of liberty which ought never to be loss sight of in a contest for liberty."[2] At the Philadelphia Convention, Madison wrote "Where slavery exists the republican Theory becomes still more fallacious."[2] He favored an immediate end to the importation of slaves, though the final document barred Congress from interfering with the international slave trade until 1808,.[3]

Madison initially opposed the 20-year ban on ending the international slave trade. However, he eventually accepted it as a necessary compromise to get the South to ratify the constitution, later writing, "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."[2] He also proposed that apportionment in the House of Representatives be allocated by the sum of each state's free population and slave population, eventually leading to the adoption of the Three-fifths Compromise.[4] Madison supported the extension of slavery into the West during the Missouri crisis of 1819–1821.[5] Madison believed that former slaves were unlikely to successfully integrate into Southern society, and in the late 1780s, he became interested in the idea of African-Americans establishing colonies in Africa.[6] Madison served as the president of the American Colonization Society, which founded the settlement of Liberia for former slaves.[7]

Although Madison had supported a republican form of government, he believed that slavery had caused the South to become aristocratic. Madison believed that slaves were human property, while he opposed slavery intellectually.[8] Along with his colonization plan for blacks, Madison believed that slavery would naturally diffuse with western expansion. His political views landed somewhere between Calhoun's separation nullification and Daniel Webster's nationalism consolidation. Madison was never able to reconcile his advocacy of republican government with his exclusion of slaves from the process of government and his lifelong reliance on the slave system.[9] Visitors to his plantation noted slaves were well housed and fed. According to Paul Jennings, one of Madison's younger slaves, Madison never lost his temper or had his slaves whipped, preferring to reprimand.[10] Madison never outwardly expressed the view that blacks were inferior; he tended to express open-mindedness on the question of race.[11]

Aerial Photo from Madison's Montpelier estate depicting slavery conditions in his time.
By 1801, Madison owned slightly over 100 slaves at Montpelier

When Madison moved to Washington, D.C. in 1801, to serve as the secretary of state of President Jefferson, Madison brought slaves from Montpelier. He also hired out slaves in Washington, D.C. but paid their masters money directly, rather than the slaves, who did the work. During Madison's presidency, his White House slaves included John Freeman, Jennings, Sukey, Joseph Bolden, Jim, and Abram.[12] Madison was referred to as a “garden-variety slaveholder" by historian Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. Madison withheld excessive cruelty to slaves to avoid criticism from peers, and to curb slave revolts. Madison worked his slaves from dawn to dusk, six days a week, getting Sundays off for rest.[12] By 1801, Madison's slave population at Montpelier was slightly over 100. During the 1820s and 1830s, Madison was forced by debts to sell land and slaves. In 1836, at the time of Madison's death, he owned 36 taxable slaves.[11] Madison did not free any of his slaves either during his lifetime or in his will.[5][8] Upon Madison's death, he left his remaining slaves to his wife Dolley, asking her only to sell her slaves with their consent. Dolley, however did not follow this prescription, selling the Montpelier plantation and many slaves to pay off the Madisons' debts, including Jennings, who she had planned to emancipate upon her death.[13] The few remaining slaves, after Dolley's death, were given to her son, Payne Todd, who freed them upon his death, though some were likely sold for debts as well.[14]


  1. ^ Burstein & Isenberg 2010, pp. 26, 200–202
  2. ^ a b c "James Madison and Slavery".
  3. ^ Burstein & Isenberg 2010, pp. 162–163
  4. ^ Burstein & Isenberg 2010, pp. 156–157
  5. ^ a b Guyatt, Nicholas (June 6, 2019). "How Proslavery Was the Constitution?". New York Review of Books.
  6. ^ Burstein & Isenberg 2010, pp. 200–201
  7. ^ Burstein & Isenberg 2010, pp. 607–608
  8. ^ a b Watts 1990, p. 1289.
  9. ^ Ketcham 2002, p. 57.
  10. ^ Broadwater 2012, pp. 188–189.
  11. ^ a b Broadwater 2012, p. 188.
  12. ^ a b Hopkins 2019.
  13. ^ "Paul Jennings – Enamoured with Freedom". www.montepelier.org. The Montpelier Foundation. Archived from the original on September 18, 2012. Retrieved 2015-01-06.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  14. ^ Montpelier The People, The Place, The Idea.