White House History Through a Slave's Eyes

Paul Jennings

One hundred ninety five years ago today, British troops set fire to the White House - and descendants of Paul Jennings, an African-American slave who was there, have come to see the national treasure he helped save.

Jennings was born into slavery in 1799 on the Virginia estate of James Madison. He came with Madison to the White House in 1809.
In 1865, Jennings, by then a free man, published the only known account by a White House slave, "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison," in which he describes what happened when Dolley Madison fled the White House as British redcoats advanced on Washington.

Learn More about Madison's Montpelier

"Suddenly the message came: 'sorry dear the battle is lost and you should leave.' And then I think she started to panic," says White House curator Bill Allman.

"All then was confusion," wrote Jennings. "Mrs. Madison ordered her carriage, and passing through the dining room, caught up what silver she could, then jumped into the chariot."

And what of the story that she saved the famous portrait of George Washington? Jennings was an eyewitness.

"It has often been state in print," Jennings writes, "that when Mrs. Madison escaped the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington…and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it."

"She gave directions on how the painting was to be removed. And it was screwed to the wall," Allman says. "They couldn't just lift it off and carry it away."

Jennings had nothing but praise for the Madisons, but after James Madison died in 1836, Dolley fell into poverty and refused to free him as her husband had promised. Instead, she sold Jennings for $200.

Freed a few years later, Jennings writes that he visited the impoverished Dolley and "occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket."

"It also creates a place in history for how slaves were a part of history of the U.S. Not an index, not a footnote that's at the back of the book," said Hugh Allen, great-great-great grandson of Jennings.

No footnote indeed.

  • Bill Plante

    Bill Plante is a CBS News Senior White House Correspondent