American presidents have a complicated history with the enslavement of African people. Four of the first five commanders-in-chief were enslavers while serving in office. Of the next five presidents, two were enslavers while on the job and two were earlier in life. As late as 1850 an American president enslaved a large number of people while serving in office.
This is a look at the presidents who were enslavers. But first, it’s easy to dispense with the two early presidents who were not, an illustrious father and son from Massachusetts.
The Early Exceptions
There were two presidents early in our country’s history who refused to be enslavers, and they also happened to be the first father and son who served in the office.
The second president did not approve of enslavement and never enslaved anyone. He and his wife Abigail were offended when the federal government moved to the new city of Washington and enslaved workers 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 enslavement. 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 enslavement on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The Early Virginians
Four of the first five presidents were products of a Virginia society in which enslavement 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 enslaved African people to steal their labor.
The first president enslaved people for most of his life, beginning at the age of 11 when he “inherited” 10 enslaved farmworkers 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 enslaved workers 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 enslaved people on the plantation, including a number of children.
In 1799, following Washington’s tenure as president, there were 317 enslaved people living and working at Mount Vernon. The changes in the enslaved population are partly due to Washington’s wife, Martha, “inheriting” more enslaved workers, but there are also reports that Washington sought out to acquire more on his own.
For most of Washington’s eight years in office, the federal government was based in Philadelphia. To skirt a Pennsylvania law that would grant an enslaved person freedom if they lived within the state for six months, Washington shuttled enslaved workers back and forth to Mount Vernon.
When Washington died, his enslaved workers were freed according to a provision in his will. However, that did not end the practice of enslavement at Mount Vernon. His wife controlled a number of enslaved people, which she did not free for another two years. And when Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, inherited Mount Vernon, a new population of enslaved workers lived and worked on the plantation.
It has been calculated that Jefferson controlled more than 600 enslaved people 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 enslaved 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 (and forced) sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife.
The fourth president was born to a Virginia family that enslaved workers, and he followed suit, enslaving people throughout his own life.
One of his enslaved workers, Paul Jennings, lived and worked in the White House as 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 work of securing valuables was mostly done by the enslaved workers there, not by Dolley Madison.
Growing up on a Virginia tobacco farm, James Monroe would have been surrounded by enslaved people who worked the land. He “inherited” an enslaved worker named Ralph from his father, and as an adult, at his own farm, Highland, he had about 30 enslaved workers.
Monroe thought colonization, the resettlement of enslaved workers 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 people who were enslaved in America and eventually settled in Africa, was named Monrovia in honor of Monroe.
The Jacksonian Era
Several presidents who served during what is known as the Jacksonian era also were enslavers, beginning with the president from whom the time period drew its name.
During the four years John Quincy Adams lived in the White House, there were no enslaved people living on the property. That changed when Andrew Jackson, from Tennessee, took office in March 1829.
Jackson harbored no qualms about enslavement. 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 became an enslaver in 1788, while a young lawyer and land speculator. He continued trading enslaved people, 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 enslaved workers with him. By the time he became president, the population of enslaved workers, 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 enslaved workers from The Hermitage.
After his two terms in office, Jackson returned to The Hermitage, where he continued to control a large population of enslaved people. At the time of his death, this number reached 150.
Martin Van Buren
As a New Yorker, Van Buren seems an unlikely enslaver. And, he eventually ran on the ticket of the Free-Soil Party, a political party of the late 1840s opposed to the spread of enslavement.
Yet, forced labor had been legal in New York when Van Buren was growing up, and his father controlled a small number of enslaved workers. As an adult, Van Buren enslaved one person, who eventually freed himself. Van Buren seems to have made no effort to locate him. When the freedom seeker was finally discovered after 10 years and Van Buren was notified, Van Buren allowed the man 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 enslaved people for generations, and Harrison would have grown up in considerable luxury which was supported by forced and stolen labor. He “inherited” enslaved people from his father, but owing to his particular circumstances, he did not control enslaved workers 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 enslavement legal in the territory, but that was opposed by the Jefferson administration.
William Henry Harrison’s time as an enslaver 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.
The man who became president upon Harrison’s death was a Virginian who had grown up in a society accustomed to enslaving people, and who was an enslaver himself while president. Tyler was representative of the paradox, or hypocrisy, of someone who claimed that enslavement was evil while actively perpetuating it. During his time as president, he enslaved about 70 people 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 the enslavement of African people 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 pro-slavery 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 an enslaver from Tennessee. On his estate, Polk enslaved about 25 workers. He was seen as being tolerant of enslavement, 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 the issue of slavery was beginning to have a major impact on American politics.
Polk did not live long after leaving office, and he was still an enslaver at the time of his death. The enslaved workers he controlled were to be freed when his wife died, though events, specifically the Civil War and the 13th Amendment, interceded to free them long before his wife’s death decades later.
The last president who was an enslaver 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 enslaved about 150 people. As the issue of slavery was beginning to split the nation, he found himself straddling the position of controlling a large number of enslaved workers while also seeming to lean against the spread of the practice.
Other Presidents: A Mixed History
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 was never an enslaver).
After Fillmore, the next president was Franklin Pierce, who had grown up in New England and also had no history of enslaving others. Following Pierce, James Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian, is believed to have enslaved people whom he set free and employed as servants.
Abraham Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was an enslaver during his earlier life in Tennessee. But, of course, enslavement 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 enslaved people during the final years of the war. Yet Grant, in the 1850s, did enslave one person.
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 enslaved people to work on the farm, and in the 1850s about 18 enslaved workers were living on the farm.
After leaving the Army, Grant managed the farm. And he acquired one enslaved worker, William Jones, from his father in law (there are conflicting accounts about how that came to happen). In 1859 Grant freed Jones.