Sankofa Studies

The Rundown on the Slave-Owning Presidents of the United States

February 17, 2020

Since it’s Presidents’ Day, I thought we should take a look at all of our slaveholdin’ Presidents. Happy Presidents’ Day tho! 

Thomas Jefferson – Our third president was one of the smartest leaders we’ve ever had, but his slave ownership doesn’t look too bright when viewed through the lens of history. Though Jefferson eventually wanted to free all slaves, he had hundreds of slaves at the White House during his terms. 

James Madison – Aside from the War of 1812 and Francis Scott Key writing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ Madison’s time in office was largely uneventful. Yet there was another notable piece of side history. Paul Jennings, one of Madison’s many slaves at the White House, wrote a detailed memoir about his time in Washington, D.C. 

James Monroe – The fifth president was a slave owner from Virginia and had slaves at the White House. Yet he outlawed slavery in the northern states in 1820, which was the same year he won his second term. 

Andrew Jackson – Slaves built his Hermitage estate in Tennessee, and he had hundreds of slaves at the White House while in office. 

John Tyler – owned slaves throughout his life, and he loved slavery more than any other president on this list. He defended slavery, opposed the anti-slavery measures of James Monroe’s presidency, and appointed pro-slavery John C. Calhoun as his Secretary of State. So yes, there were plenty of slaves at the White House during his term. 

James K. Polk – As the Civil War got closer, slavery was an ever more political topic. Abolitionists were not fans of Polk because he was a big fan of slavery. He owned slaves his whole life, and Presidential History Geeks write he purchased more when became president. 

Zachary Taylor – During his brief stint in office, Zachary Taylor relied on slaves at the White House to help keep the place running. Despite being a slave owner, he wasn’t a big slavery defender and he vowed to start a war with southern secessionists over his slavery policies. 

George Washington – There is just one reason why our first president didn’t have slaves at the White House — the White House wasn’t built yet. He owned slaves for decades, but he was torn on the practice and freed all his slaves when he died. 

Martin Van Buren – Van Buren didn’t have any slaves at the White House, but he owned one slave in his life. He was opposed to slavery, despite being the Vice President for Andrew Jackson, who favored the practice. 

William Henry Harrison – A slave owner and slavery lover, William Henry Harrison didn’t have any slaves at the White House. He barely had a chance to move in. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1841, and died a month later. 

Andrew Johnson – Though he was a slave owner Andrew Johnson didn’t have any slaves at the White House, and he definitely didn’t do much to help freed slaves. He became president after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, but he didn’t have the same humanitarian outlook. Wanting to quickly rebuild the nation after the Civil War, his lenient Reconstructionist policies let the southern states oppress the newly freed slaves. 

Ulysses S. Grant – It’s shocking seeing Grant on a list of presidential slave owners considering he was a Union general during the Civil War. He controlled slaves owned by his wife Julia, but Grant only owned one slave, whom he freed in 1859 before the Civil War started. 


Here are a few interesting books about our Presidents and the people they enslaved: 

Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar 

In The Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents and Five Black Lives by Kenneth C. Davis 

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