The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House
by Jesse J Holland
First Lyons Press (2017)
This fascinating book recounts the personal histories of individuals slaves owned by US presidents between 1789 and 1861. Twelve of the first eighteen presidents owned slaves. Of founding fathers who became president, only John Adams and John Quincy Adam (who were Quakers) didn’t own them. Jefferson and Adams owned slaves despite speaking out against slavery.
Most is known about the individual slaves owned by Washington, Jefferson and Madison. At the time of the revolution, Washington owned 150 slaves. He would bring some of his house slaves with him to New York (the first US capitol) when he assumed the presidency in 1789. Things got more complicated when the US capitol moved to Philadelphia in 1790. Pennsylvania, which abolished slavery in 1780, had a law automatically granting freedom to any slave who remained in the state longer than six months. This meant Washington had to send his slaves back to his Mount Vernon plantation every six months to retain ownership.* This process likely led to of them to escape.
The chapter on Jefferson’s slaves includes his relationship with 15-year-old Sally Hemmings and the six children he had by her. Sally and her children remained at Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, though her brother James served as a French-trained chef in the Jefferson White House.
Madison owned 100 slaves. Like Washington and Jefferson brought his house slaves to the White House to serve as domestic servants.
In addition to chapters on slaves owned by Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Andrew Johnson and Grant, there are excellent chapters on the history of the transition from indentured servitude to slavery and the early states to abolish slavery (Vermont 1777, Massachusetts 1783 and New York 1827).
One of the best chapters concerns the vital role slaves played in constructing the White House. One of the most important jobs they performed was digging up clay for bricks, although they also quarried stone used in interior walls and served as carpenters. The US paid their owners a wage for their services.
*This six-month rule was largely responsible for the decision to create a separate district as the nation’s capitol (Washington DC). The Southern slave states of Maryland and Virginia gladly gave up some of their state territory to accommodate slave-holding presidents.