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.”