Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?

James Madison (1809-1817)

James Madison grew up in a slave-owning family and owned slaves all his life. 


During the Revolutionary War Virginia considered offering slaves as a reward to enlisting soldiers.  "Would it not be as well to liberate and make soldiers at once of the blacks themselves as to make them instruments for enlisting white soldiers?  It would certainly be more consonant to the principles of liberty which ought never to be lost sight of in a contest for liberty, and with white officers & a majority of white soldiers no imaginable danger could be feared from themselves, as there certainly could be none from the effect of the example on those who should remain in bondage; experience having shown that a freedman immediately loses all attachment & sympathy with his former fellow slaves." (Madison,1962,v.2. p 209)

1783:Leaving Philadelphia after serving in the Congress of the Confederation JM found his slave Billey unwilling to return to the less free condition of life in Virginia.  "I have judged it most prudent not to force Billey back to Va. even if it could be done; and have accordingly taken measures for his final separation from me.  I am persuaded his mind is too thoroughly tainted to be a fit companion for fellow shaves in Virginia.The laws here do not admit of his being sold for more than 7 years (as an indentured servant, after which he wouldbe free).  I do not expect to get near the worth of him; but cannot think of punishing him by transportation merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood, and have proclaimed so often to be the right, & worthy the pursuit, of every human being." (Madison,  1962,v.7 p304)


1788: "It were doubtless to be wished that the power of prohibiting the importation of slaves, had not been postponed (in the federal constitution) until the year 1808, or rather that it had been suffered to have immediate operation...  It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate for everwithin these states, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period it will receive a considerable discouragement from the federal government, and may be totally abolished by a concurrence of the few states which continue the unnatural traffic, in the prohibitory example which has been given by so great a majority of the union.  Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans, if an equal prospect lay before them, of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethren!" (Madison,1999.p 237)


1788:"But we must deny the fact that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons.  The true case is, that they partake of both these qualities; being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects, as property.  In being compelled to labor not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another master; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty, and chastised in his body, by the capricious will of another, the slave may appear to be degraded from the human rank, and classed with those irrational animals, which fall under the legal denomination of property.  In being protected o the other hand in hi life and in his limbs, against the violence of all others, even the master of his labour and his liberty; and in being punishable himself for all violence committed against others; the slave is no less evidently regarded by the law as a member of the society..."(Madison.1999,p310-11)


1789.  Congress considered a bill to tax the  import of slaves in order to stop or reduce it.Some members objected to the bill because it treatedslaves as property.  "...the evil does not arise from adopting the clause now proposed; it is from the importation to which it relates.  Our object in enumerating persons on paper with merchandize, is to prevent the practice of actually treating them as such...Every addition (Georgia and South Carolina) receive to their number of slaves, tends to weaken them and renders them less capable of self defence; in case of hostilities with foreign nations, they (slaves) will be the means of inviting attack instead of repelling invasion." (Madison,  1979.v.12. p160-2.)


1789: "Establishing a Settlement of freed blacks on the Coast of Africa... might prove a great encouragement tom manumission in the Southern parts of the U.S. and even afford the best hope yet presented of putting an end to the slavery in which not less than 600,000 unhappy negroes are now involved.  In all the Southern States of N. America, the laws permit masters, under certain precautions to manumit their slaves.  But the continuance of such a permission in some of the States is rendered precarious by the ill effects suffered from freedmen who retain the vices and habits of slaves.  The same consideration becomes an objection with many humane masters against an exertion of their legal rights of freeing their slaves.  It is found in fact that neither the good of the Society, nor the happiness of the individuals restored to freedom is promoted by such a change in their condition."(Madison.1999 p472-3)

1819:"In reference to the actual condition of slaves in Virginia it may be confidently stated, as better beyond comparison, than it was before the Revolution...  They are better fed, better clad, better lodged, and better treated in every respect: insomuch that what was formerly deemed a moderate treatment, would now be a rigid one, and what formerly a rigid one, would now be denounced by the Public feeling."(Madison.1999,p723.)


1819: "A general emancipation of slaves ought to be 1. gradual.  2. equitable & satisfactory to the individuals immediately concerned.  3.  consistent with the existing & durable prejudices of the nation...  To be consistent with existing and probably unalterable prejudices in the U.S. freed blacks ought to be permanently removed beyond the region occupied by or alloted to a White  population  (Madison.1999,p729)


1819: Madison proposed that after being freed blacks be given land west of the United States because if they stayed among the whites they would be discriminatedagainst and: "must be always dissatisfied with their condition as a change only from one to another species of oppression; always secretly confederated against the ruling & privileged class; and always uncontrolled by some of the most cogent motives to moral and respectable conduct.  The character of the free blacks, even where their legal condition is least affected by their colour, seems to put these truths beyond question...Nor is it fair, in estimating the danger of Collisions with the Whites, to charge it wholly on the side of the Blacks."(Madison.1999,p729)


1829: "That peculiar feature in our community... the coloured part of our population...  It is due to justice; due to humanity; due to truth; to the sympathies of our nature; in fine, to our character as a people, both abroad and at home, that they should be considered, as much as possible, in the light of human beings, and not as mere property.  As such they are acted upon by our laws, and have an interest in our laws.  They may be considered as making a part, though a degraded part, of the families to which they belong." (Madison.1999,p827)


In 1833 Madison sold several of his farms but not his slaves.  A year later he sold 16 slaves to a relative - with their permission. (Brant, p637)


1833: He became president of the American Colonization Society which was moving free blacks to what is now Liberia.  (Brant 636)


He did not free his slaves in his will. (Brant p640)