Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?

William Henry Harrison (1841)

William Henry Harrison's father and grandfather owned slaves.

Approx 1790:  At age 17 Harrison joined  an abolitionist organization.  Many years later he would use this membership as proof that he was not pro-slavery.  But see 1833 and 1840.  (Cleaves,  p7, 253)

1798-1800: Harrison inherited about a dozen slaves and took seven of them with him when he was made governor of the Indiana territory, which was “free soil:” no new slaves allowed (although a few slaves were listed in the Census there as late as 1830).  His slaves then became indentured servants under conditions that were virtually  undistinguishable from slavery.  (Clarin, p1.  Also Green,  p434-5.  Also Cleaves.  p250)

1803:  Governor Harrison and Indiana’s judges adopted a Virginia law (the territory couldn’t create new  laws, just borrow existing ones) that allowed virtual slavery to exist: a master bringing in a slave could  force them to sign up as an “indentured servant” with a term running for, say ninety years.  (Goebel, p76-78)  Harrison took advantage of this but after the indenture law was repealed - with his signature -  his servants – White as well as Black – were generally freed after about a decade of service. (Green,  p434-5.  Also Cleaves.  p250)

 1804:  Two Blacks named George and Peggy were arrested in Indiana by a man who claimed they were  runaway slaves.  Governor Harrison prevented them from being taken out of state.  A long muddle  followed in which the Blacks were freed and rearrested; Harrison and some friends paid their bail.  Before a third attempt could be made to take them out of state George agreed to sign up as an indentured servant of Harrison for a term of eleven years.  Peggy was not bothered after that.   George later lived on one of Harrison’s farms. (Dunn,  p312-3)

1805:  First Assembly in Indiana passed an act, which Governor Harrison signed,  allowing slaveowners to   convert (illegal) slaves to indentured servants.  Negroes under fifteen could be kept in service until 35.  Women until 32.  Offspring of such stayed in service until 30 (male) or  28 (female).  (Webster,  p211)

  1810: Indiana indenture law was repealed.  Governor Harrison signed this law as well.  (Webster, p227)

1818:  As a congressman from Ohio Harrison  responded to a New York congressman: "Mr. Harrison said that... [the people of Ohio] would never come to this House...for permission so to alter their constitution as to admit the introduction of slavery, the object of the gentleman's abhorrence, as, said Mr. H.; it is of mine."  (Annals of  Congress. 1818. p. 310.)

 1819: Harrison sought a female Kentucky slave he could convert to an indentured servant.  “I want one  more than ever as Priscilla’s former master has much to my satisfaction come on for her and repaid her the mone  I gave him…  The woman should be of such a character as will promise fidelity in the performance of her  engagements.  I will agree that she shall be free at from 6 to 8 years in proportion to the price she may cost.”   (Cleaves.  p250)

 1819:  As a congressman  from Ohio Harrison claimed to be against slavery, but  consistently vote  against bills that would have kept slavery from spreading.  (Goebel, p223)

 1820:  “We cannot emancipate the slaves of the other states without their consent, but by producing a convulsion   which would undo us all…We must wait the slow but certain progress of those good principles which ar  everywhere gaining ground, and which assuredly will ultimately prevail.” (Cleaves.  p254)

  1820-1: In the Ohio Senate Harrison voted for a bill which allowed petty thieves [of any race] to be sold   into a term of service if they were unable to pay their fines.  (Goebel, p356)

1833:  "I am accused of being friendly to slavery.  From my earliest youth to the present moment, I have been the  ardent friend of Human Liberty.  At the age of eighteen, I became a member of an Abolition Society established  at Richmond, Virginia; the object of which was to ameliorate the condition of slaves and procure their freedom by  every legal means...  I have been the means of liberating many slaves, but never placed one in bondage... I was  the first person to introduce into congress the proposition that all the country above [North of] Missouri... should  never have slavery admitted into it.”  (Todd,  p133-5.)  But see 1840.

1833: “The discussion of emancipation in the non-slaveholding States is equally injurious to the slaves and their  masters and… has no sanction in the principles of the constitution.” (Cleaves.  p284)

  1833: Harrison declared he was in favor of emancipation only if the slaves were sent back to Africa.  (Goebel,  p318)

  1835: “Am I wrong, fellow-citizens, in applying the terms weak, presumptuous and unconstitutional, to the  measures of the emancipators?  Some of the emancipators propose immediate abolition.  What is the proposition  then, as it regards the states and parts of states [where Blacks are in the majority] but the alternatives of  amalgamation with the blacks, or an exchange of situations with them?  Is there any man of common sense who  does not believe that the emancipated blacks, being a majority, will not insist upon a full participation of  political rights with the whites; and when possessed of these, they will not contend for a full share of social rights  also?" (Todd, p137)

1836:  Presidential candidate Harrison declared that Congress had no power to eliminate slavery in the states or the District of Columbia.  (Goebel, p 318)

1840: Presidential candidate Harrison swore he had never been an abolitionist and that the organization he  had joined at age 17 was simply a “humane society.” (Goebel, p358)

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