List of Slave-holding Presidents

Founders, Presidents, Slaveholders: First US President George Washington; third President Thomas Jefferson; and fourth President James Madison

The website “Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves” provides a list of slave-holding Chief Executives:

1) George Washington, 1st President, Virginia
2) Thomas Jefferson, 3rd, Virginia
3) James Madison, 4th, Virginia
4) James Monroe, 5th, Virginia
5) Andrew Jackson, 7th, South Carolina/Tennessee
6) Martin Van Buren, 8th, New York
7) William Henry Harrison, 9th, Virginia
8) John Tyler, 10th, Virginia
9) James K. Polk, 11th, North Carolina
10) Zachary Taylor, 12th, Virginia
*) James Buchanan, 15th, Pennsylvania
11) Andrew Johnson, 17th, North Carolina
12) Ulysses S. Grant, 18th, Ohio

Not all of these men owned slaves while they were president. Also, not all of them purchased slaves; they may have inherited them, or obtained them via marriage or gift. See the website “Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves” for more details.

President James Buchanan is on the list with an asterisk. According to one account, some time before becoming president, Buchanan purchased two slaves in Virginia from a brother-in-law, and immediately converted them to “indentured servants.” One slave served under indenture for seven years; the other — who was five years old when assumed by Buchanan – was indentured for 23 years. Both servants were female.

Of note is that seven of the persons on the list were from Virginia. Virginia was the most populous, and arguably the most powerful state when George Washington became the first president in 1789. According to the 1790 Census, Virginia had over 747,000 residents, of whom 292,000 were enslaved; the second most populous state was Pennsylvania, with over 434,000 residents. But by 1860, Virginia was only the seventh most populous state, behind New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Massachusetts.

The power of the slave states, as reflected in the number of slaveholding presidents as well as the number of congressmen from slave states in the House of Representatives, led to some resentment among people in the free states. The U.S. Constitution allots representation in the House based on population, and states that 3/5ths of a state’s slaves count in the population total. Because electoral college rules for electing presidents are based on Congressional representation, the slave population was a factor in determining the outcome of presidential elections. Some northerners felt that the slave states gained an unfair level of representation due to the use of non-citizens (slaves) in setting the count of House seats; they believed that representation should be based solely on the population of free citizens.

Some in the free states also complained about presidents and other politicians who were “Northern men with Southern principles.” These were men who were from the free states but championed the interestes and policies of southern slaveholders. This included men like president Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, who were derisively called “doughfaces.”


Trivia: Sumter’s Law and the “Black Currency”

Most of us know from American history class that the shooting war between the United States and the Confederate States started at Ft. Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Here’s some trivia about the man who gave Ft. Sumter its name.

Thomas Sumter (1734–1832), nicknamed the “Carolina Gamecock,” was a Revolutionary War hero and a member of the US Congress. As noted in wikipedia:

Portrait of American Revolutionary War militia...

Thomas Sumter by Rembrandt Peale, via Wikipedia

In February 1776, Sumter was elected Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Regiment of the South Carolina Line of which he was later appointed Colonel. He subsequently was appointed Brigadier General of the South Carolina militia, a post he held until the end of the war. He participated in several battles in the early months of the war, including the campaign to prevent an invasion of Georgia. Perhaps his greatest military achievement was his partisan campaigning that contributed to the decision by Lord Cornwallis to leave the Carolinas for Virginia, where Cornwallis met his fate at Yorktown in October 1781.

He acquired the nickname “The Carolina Gamecock” for his fierce fighting tactics, regardless of his size. A British General commented that Sumter “fought like a gamecock,” and Cornwallis paid him the finest tribute when he described the Gamecock as his greatest plague.

After the Revolution, Sumter served South Carolina as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives… (and) was elected a U. S. Senator…

“Gamecock” is one of the several traditional nicknames for a native of South Carolina. The University of South Carolina’s official nickname is the “Fighting Gamecocks,” though since 1903 the teams have been simply known as the “Gamecocks.”

Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor was named for Sumter after the War of 1812.

What I’ve found interesting is the enlistment bonus policy that Sumter used to attract men in South Carolina to fight for the Patriot cause. As Michael Lee Lanning notes in his book African Americans in the Revolutionary War,

Although neither South Carolina nor Georgia permitted black enlistment, both states did allow slaves to be used as bounties to induce white volunteers. In April 1781, Gen Thomas Sumter of South Carolina offered slaves to any white man volunteering for ten months of service. New recruits were to receive one grown, healthy slave, while those with prior service could receive up to four blacks for reenlisting.

In February 1782 the South Carolina legislature formalized “Sumter’s Law.” In addition to promising a healthy slave between the ages of ten and forty to any white who enlisted, the legislature ruled that recruiters were to receive a bonus of one slave for every twenty-five whites enlisted during a two-month period.Since neither Sumter nor the South Carolina legislature had any slaves of their own to barter for enlistments, they honored the bounty with slaves captured or confiscated from Loyalists (to the British).

Georgia broadened the scale of the use of slaves as enlistment bonuses. The state rewarded white soldiers with slaves for their part in successful battles, paid public officials with slaves, and used slaves as tender in exchange for military provisions and supplies. Again, the source of this “black currency” was the plantations of the Loyalists.

How ironic that the “black currency” used to wage the Revolutionary War would be the spark that led to the Civil War.

FYI, Virginia also used slaves as an enlistment bonus – see here.

Confederate President and Vice-President: Secession was Due to Slavery

Confederate States President Jefferson Davis and Vice-President Alexander Stephens: Founding Fathers for a nation that “rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”

What are children being taught about the causes of the Civil War? I ask because in a recent Pew Research Center poll, 48% of respondents said that the war “was mainly about states’ rights,” while 38% said it “was mainly about slavery.”

I have issues with the way the question concerning the causes of the war was worded, but even so, it is perplexing that almost 50% of those polled thought that states’ rights was the cause of the war.

That runs counter to the thinking of modern historians. Consider the comments of historian Elizabeth Varon, author of the book Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, in a lecture two years ago: “there’s emerged in recent years a strong consensus, which scholars call the fundamentalist school, that slavery was the root fundamental cause of the civil war and that the political antagonisms between the North and South flowed from the fact that the North was a free labor society while the South was a slave labor society which remained committed to slavery and indeed to extending its domain.”

That view – that slavery was the “root cause” of the war – is not shared by many folks today, and I wonder why there is a disconnect between what scholars understand and what non-scholars understand. It makes me wonder: what are children being taught about the war in school? And specifically, what are they being taught about the views of the Confederate Founding Fathers, such as Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Vice-President Alexander Stephens?

Just before Davis became President of the Confederate States, he was a United States senator for the state of Mississippi. When Mississippi seceded, it issued A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union. This document was basically Mississippi’s declaration of independence from the United States government. This is how the document begins:

In the momentous step which our State [Mississippi] has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

Following that declaration, Davis made a farewell speech to the Senate on January 21, 1861, to announce that he was leaving the Congress to join with his disunionist state, and to give some reasons for the state’s actions:

..if I had not believed there was justifiable cause; if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation, or without an existing necessity, I should still… because of my allegiance to the State… have been bound by her action. I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act.

I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counseled them then that if the state of things which they apprehended should exist when the convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted…

It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions [i.e., slavery]; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.

On March 21, 1861, Confederate States Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, gave what is now called the “Cornerstone Speech” which, among other things, talked about the reasons for secession:

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.
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