Founders, Presidents, Slaveholders: First US President George Washington; third President Thomas Jefferson; and fourth President James Madison
The webpages “Slaveholding Presidents” and “Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves” provide 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 webpages “Slaveholding Presidents” and “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.”
Not every president who owned slaves thought well of the institution. As noted here, George Washington became a slave owner at age eleven, when he inherited an estate that included ten slaves from his father. At the time of his death in 1799, Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation had 318 slaves, almost half of whom were owned by Washington himself. But in his will, he stipulated that his slaves (perhaps excepting the elderly who could not care for themselves) be manumitted, or freed, after both he and his wife Martha passed away. Martha manumitted the slaves at the end of 1800. Before his death Washington said
“I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery]; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage [vote and support] will go, shall never be wanting [lacking].”
Washington privately noted his support for gradual emancipation, but he was no abolitionist, and did not advocate for the expiration of the institution in his home state of Virginia or the rest of the United States.
Perhaps the most pointed criticism of slavery came from Thomas Jefferson. Writing in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Jefferson said:
There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal.
The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other. For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him.
With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour.
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.
Despite the feelings expressed above, Jefferson, like Wasington, was not an abolitionist. Although he felt that slavery was not right with God, material considerations seemed to be an overriding, practical, concern.
The historian Gary Nash, in his book The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the age of Revolution has stated that the failure of the first American presidents to forcefully advocate for emancipation was a lost opportunity to end slavery much sooner than the bloody American Civil War:
Southern leaders, especially Virginia’s George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, were strategically positioned to take the lead on slavery. All three professed a hate of slavery and a fervent desire to see it ended in their own time. As president, as secretary of state and then vice president, and as floor leader in the House of Representatives, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison knew of their unusual leverage as opinion shapers and political persuaders… “active support of gradual emancipation by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison,” writes John Kaminski,” might have been sufficient to mount a serious attack on slavery.”
…Historians are not mathematicians, and even if they were, they could not calculate with precision the degrees to which moral, psychological, economic, or political elements contributed to the failure of the founding fathers to become risk takers rather than risk averters on the matter of slavery… had they stepped forward… the course of history might have changed. …(instead) Sixty years after Jefferson became president in 1801, the bloodletting began that would claim the lives of more than six hundred thousand Americans and shatter the bodies of as many more, in a war in which emancipation became one of the Union’s main goals.