James Madison's Montpelier We The People Fall 2014 - Page 8

We The People 8 continued from page 7 of Paul Jennings. Born into slavery at Montpelier, Paul Jennings served the Madisons throughout their lives, including as James Madison’s personal attendant during his retirement years. Jennings accompanied the Madisons to the White House and likely aided in the famous rescue of the portrait of George Washington before the British burned Washington during the War of 1812. Years later, he was at Madison’s side when he died and left behind the only first-person account of Madison’s death. A lesser-known period in Jennings’ life is how he obtained freedom through the assistance of Senator Daniel Webster. Webster had a tradition of purchasing slaves and allowing them to earn their freedom. After repaying his “debt” to Webster, Jennings went on to become a prominent member of Washington's African American community, acquiring several downtown properties and assisting slaves on their path to freedom. Family oral histories tell us that Jennings, a literate man, forged freedom papers for runaway slaves. Other accounts indicate that Jennings helped organize an attempted slave escape involving the Pearl—a ship anchored in the Potomac River, which more than a hundred slaves boarded with the hope of obtaining freedom in the North. “Seeing the places where Paul and his family lived has brought an unbelievable emotional and intellectual context to my sense of family and who I am. I often think about what our forebears might make of our family’s journey over the past 200 years,” says Ms. Jordan. “I like to imagine they are looking down and saying, ‘Oh my goodness, look at this.’” Jennings died in 1874. Thus, he lived through the Civil War, in which his three sons, also born into slavery, fought for the Union. He and George Gilmore both witnessed the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which guaranteed that the “blessings of liberty” would be extended to all American citizens, including former slaves and their descendants. Though the battle for civil rights would not be materially advanced for another century, never again would a person be considered property under the law in the United States of America. While we revere James Madison and uphold the U.S. Constitution, commitment to truth dictates that we recognize Madison was human and, therefore, imperfect— Margaret Jordan and her daughter, Fawn Jordan, stand in front of the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in the White House—the portrait their ancestor, Paul Jennings, helped save. just as the Constitution he created is an imperfect document. Madison and the other founders recognized these flaws and created an amendment process by which the Constitution could be changed. After all, it was written “to form a more perfect union.” While the Constitution has been amended and improved over the past 227 years, Americans still seek further perfection today. The Constitution binds us together as Americans—not where we are from, the color of our skin, or our religion. That is why this story is an American story. It is not your history or my history, but our history. History is a portal to our past that guides our future. Expanding the African American story at Montpelier, making what has been largely invisible visible, and telling an inclusive story creates stronger communities and a stronger nation. ARCHAEOLOGY SCHOLARSHIPS Thanks to a generous grant from James Madison University, African American high school and college students from surrounding counties are eligible for expedition scholarships. For more information, please contact Matthew Reeves, Ph.D., Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration, at mreeves@montpelier.org.