Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?

Ranking the Presidents

"I like the Walrus best," said Alice: because he was a little sorry for the poor oysters."
"He ate more than the Carpenter, though," said Tweedledee.
"You see, he held his handkerchief in front, so that
the Carpenter couldn't see how many he took: contrariwise."
"That was mean!" Alice said indignantly.
"Then I like the Carpenter best -- if he didn't eat so many as the Walrus."
"But he ate as many as he could get," said Tweedledum.
-Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking-Glass

Throughout this website I have tried to stick to the objective facts, except for the page titled Were They Just Men of their Time? One problem with objectivity is that it treats Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant as equal: both slave owners.  Ditto with James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, both non-owners.  On this page I try to distinguish between different levels of commitment to slavery or anti-slavery.  The categories are arbitrary, subjective, and my own.

1. Slave Trader

Andrew Jackson

Many presidents who owned slaves found it abhorrent to sell one, even if they needed the money.  Lincoln observed that many slaveowners would not shake the hand of a slave-trader.  But for some years Jackson made part of his living doing just that.

2. Permanent commitment ot Slavery

Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
James K. Polk 
Zachary Taylor 
John Tyler

Each of these presidents owned slaves for all of their adult lives, and none of them freed the people in their wills.  Some owned over a hundred, some owned only a few, but all owned "as many as they could get."

3.  Lifetime commitment to slavery.

George Washington

Unlike the men in category 2, Washington arranged that his slaves would be freed after he and his wife died.  They could not free the slaves Martha had inherited from her first husband except by buying them from the estate.  They did not do so.

4.  Interrupted slaveowners

William Henry Harrison

Andrew Johnson

Harrison owned slaves until he moved to the (free) Northwest Territory.  He converted his slaves to indentured servants and urged Congress to permit slavery in the territory.  Later in life he claimed to have belonged to an abolitionist organization as a youth ; still later he claimed it was just a humane society.

Johnson  was a Democratic pro-union Senator from Confederate Tennessee.  Rebel forces confiscated his slaves and at that point things get murky.  Some reports say they were given back.  Johnson says that at least some them came back on their own and he treated them as free employees from then on.  If he had any slaves left  he certainly freed them when, as Military Governor of Tennessee, he freed all of the slaves in the state in 1864.

5.  Minimum slaveownership.

Martin Van Buren

Ulysses S Grant

Martin Van Buren inherited slaves.   Twenty years before he became president his only slave ran away.  When the slave was caught eight years later he offered him for sale.

Grant apparently never bought or sold slaves but his wife received some from her father, and he used the labor of other of his father-in-law's slaves.  There is a certificate signed by Grant freeing a slave.

6.  Technically non-slaveowner

James Buchanan

Buchanan certainly thought he was not a slaveowner.  When running for the Senate he bought his brother-in-law's slaves and freed them so that no one could say there were slaves in the family.  But when he "freed" them he actually converted them to indentured servants who had to work for him for seven years in one case, and 23 years in the case of a child.

7.  Accidental non-slaveowner

Franklin Pierce

Pierce was from a free state and owned no slaves but he defended the rights of southerners to do so.

8. Passive anti-slavery.

John Adams
Millard Fillmore

While he called it "an evil of colossal magnitude," most of Adams' public arguments against slavery seemed practical.  He didn't want slaves in his country for the same reason he didn't want gunpowder in his kitchen: too dangerous.

Fillmore said he despised slavery, but as president he felt he had a constitutional duty to defend it.

9.  Active anti-slavery

John Quincy Adams
Abraham Lincoln

John Quincy Adams did nothing about slavery while president (in fact, he did almost nothing useful about anything while president).   However, he later entered the House of Representatives  (the only ex-president to do so successfully), from which battled  slavery for many years.

Lincoln was consistently anti-slavery, though not always pro-abolitionist.  The South expected him to move against slavery and that is one of the reasons they seceded.  Lincoln felt constitutionally justified in freeing the slaves in the rebel states as a war measure.  He did not attempt to free the slaves in Northern territory.

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