Slavery and Freedom in the White House Collection: The Fight for Emancipation
This exhibit explores the history of slavery and emancipation in the United States through art, furnishings, chinaware, and other objects in the White House.
The nineteenth century brought with it the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, precipitated in part by rising abolitionist sentiment. Around the turn of the century, countries began to abolish the slave trade, and the United States followed shortly thereafter in 1808. While these limitations made significant progress toward abolition, domestic slavery and slave trading remained legal and thrived in the United States for decades.
The fight for emancipation throughout the antebellum era is evident throughout the White House—particularly in the Lincoln Bedroom, where artifacts and art reflect the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln. But other individuals, including prominent abolitionists, foreign allies, and enslaved and free African Americans furthered this cause, and these efforts can also be revealed through the White House Collection.
The Path to Abolition
While there has always been resistance to slavery, abolitionism as a political and social movement gradually expanded during the first half of the nineteenth century. Religious groups such as the Quakers and organizations like the American Anti-Slavery Society (founded in 1833) mobilized to convince the public that slavery was morally evil, lobbying the federal government to prohibit slavery across the country. These efforts, led by abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, and Sojourner Truth, continued until the abolition of slavery in 1865.
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Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, ca. Early Nineteenth Century
Oil on Glass
The Marquis de Lafayette’s likeness is featured several times in the White House Collection—a testament to his service in the American Revolution and his close relationship with several American presidents including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe. The Frenchman, who had helped the Continental Army to victory, was a staunch abolitionist, despite his relationships with many slave owners.
Lafayette first encountered slavery while fighting in the American Revolution. In fact, an enslaved man named James Armistead served in his unit, spying on the British War Department and relaying important information to Lafayette and the Continental Army. Unfortunately, after the war, Armistead returned to enslavement; upon hearing of this, the Marquis de Lafayette attested to his service, which helped James obtain his freedom. James Armistead later took the surname “Lafayette” in honor of their relationship.
In 1783, Lafayette proposed an experiment to George Washington, in which the two men would purchase land in French Guiana where enslaved laborers would be paid for tenant farming, setting them on a path to freedom; Washington ultimately did not join Lafayette, and his plan failed when the French government confiscated the land during the Reign of Terror. Lafayette remained an antislavery advocate for the rest of his life.White House Collection/White House Historical Association
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William Thornton, ca. 1800
Robert Field (ca. 1769-1819)
Watercolor on Ivory
William Thornton, depicted in this watercolor miniature, embodies the very complex relationship many had with slavery. Although born on his family’s sugar plantation on Tortola, British Virgin Islands, Thornton was raised by Quakers in England, developing antislavery sentiments while embracing Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality. Despite being trained as a doctor, he went on to become a prominent architect in early Washington, D.C., serving as the first architect of the Capitol and as a city commissioner. Thornton called slavery the “darkest stain” on society yet benefitted from enslaved labor in his household and on construction projects in Washington, D.C.
Driven to find an end to the practice of slavery, Thornton became an outspoken supporter of emancipation and subsequently, colonization. In 1791, Thornton introduced a petition to lead a colony of newly-free Black men to Sierra Leone and later proposed Puerto Rico as a possible location for such a settlement. At its core, colonization supported the idea that Black and White Americans could not live in harmony, and that instead, African Americans should “return” to Africa or elsewhere.
Abolitionists were divided on the issue of colonization. Ultimately, colonization efforts failed, as many Black Americans desired to remain in their home country, rather than being driven away. William Thornton and others promoted colonization as a solution to slavery, when it was instead a diversion from the realities of integrating American society.White House Collection/White House Historical Association
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Fanny Kemble, 1834
Thomas Sully (1783-1872)
Oil on Canvas
Thomas Sully painted this portrait of English actress Fanny Kemble in 1834. Best known for her Shakespearean acting skills, Kemble became a theatrical sensation in England. In 1832, she brought her talent to American audiences on a multi-year tour of the United States, and while in America she met and married wealthy southern slave owner Pierce M. Butler.
Fanny Kemble supported women’s equality, Indigenous rights, and abolition, which led to severe disagreements between the couple following her first visit to her husband’s Georgia plantation in 1838. The two divorced in 1849, but throughout their tumultuous marriage, Kemble documented the horrors of slavery in her journals and letters. In her words, “I have sometimes been haunted with the idea that it was an imperative duty, knowing what I know, and having seen what I have seen, to do all that lies in my power to show the dangers and the evils of this frightful institution.” She eventually decided to publish them during the Civil War under the title Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839, hoping to contribute to the end of slavery and by extension, the war. Though her role in swaying her countrymen and women toward the Union cause cannot be measured, her book introduced many English readers to the horrors of slavery on a southern plantation.White House Collection/White House Historical Association
Below is a ca. 1824 engraving of James Armistead Lafayette, the enslaved man that served in Marquis de Lafayette's unit and who later obtained his freedom with the help of Marquis de Lafayette himself.
The Road to Civil War
As the nineteenth century unfolded, sectional conflict over the expansion of slavery in the West led to a series of political compromises and violent engagements that drove the country closer to war. Art and objects have the ability to communicate the tensions that gripped the country in the antebellum era, reflecting and shaping the opinions of everyday people.
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John Tyler, 1859
George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1894)
Oil on Canvas
Presidential portraiture is often highly symbolic, featuring references to important moments and achievements in the sitter’s administration. In this portrait of President John Tyler by George Peter Alexander Healy, a stack of papers sits on the table at the right of the frame; one reads “Texas.” In the decades leading up to the Civil War, pro-slavery presidents allowed the expansion of slavery into new territories; in Tyler’s case, this is reflected in his support of a Congressional resolution to annex Texas as a slave state in 1845. Throughout the antebellum era, the question of balance between slave and free states sometimes resulted in violence, and the annexation further expanded the institution of slavery in America.White House Collection/White House Historical Association
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Lincoln Campaign Button, ca. 1860
In 1860, the issue of slavery dominated the presidential campaign. Four candidates fought for the White House: Republican Abraham Lincoln, Democrat Stephen Douglas, Southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge, and Constitutional Union candidate John Bell. This campaign button in the White House Collection features Lincoln and the inscription “Abraham Lincoln, Free Soil & Free Men.” The mantra had previously been used by the Free Soil Party—a party opposed to the spread of slavery across the American West—showing that Lincoln shared this view. The Free Soil Party was short lived, but some party members went on to found the Republican Party.White House Collection/White House Historical Association
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Cannonading on the Potomac, October, 1861, ca. 1868-1870
Alfred Wordsworth Thompson (1840-1896)
Oil on Canvas
Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in November 1860 was viewed as a threat to slavery, and in response, several southern states seceded from the Union, beginning with South Carolina in December. As Lincoln himself predicted, “A house divided against itself cannot stand;” instead, the nation found itself on the brink of war. On April 12, 1861, the first conflict of the Civil War unfolded at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The war continued for the next four years. Photographers and artists like Alfred Wordsworth Thompson captured scenes from the battlefields, including this depiction of cannon fire on the Potomac River prior to the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October 1861.White House Collection/White House Historical Association
While he is known to many today as the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery were more complicated than that title might imply, evolving significantly during the four years of his presidency. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass were highly critical of Lincoln’s sluggishness toward emancipation, but as time went on, Lincoln worked to end slavery in the United States.
On April 16, 1862, Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, which freed nearly 3,000 enslaved people in the nation’s capital and provided compensation to slave owners. Following the Union Army’s victory at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln took another important step toward emancipation, announcing his intention to free enslaved people in rebel-held territory with a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in his office upstairs at the White House—now the Lincoln Bedroom—granting freedom to enslaved people held in bondage in rebelling Confederate states.
On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War. However, news of the surrender and emancipation did not reach all parts of the country for several months. In Galveston, Texas, enslaved men, women, and children learned of their freedom on June 19, 1865, over two years since the Emancipation Proclamation. That day, Union troops arrived in the city and delivered the news that the war was over and the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were free. The day came to be known as Juneteenth and is now celebrated as a federal holiday.
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Side Chair, ca. 1846
J. and J. W. Meeks (ca. 1836-1855), New York
This black walnut side chair, originally made by J. and J. W. Meeks, is part of a set used in the Cabinet Room for several decades. Most notably, the chairs appear in Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s painting First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln. Carpenter lived at the White House for six months in 1864, basing his painting off conversations and sittings with President Lincoln and observations of the furnishings and interiors there. A great supporter of the president and his choice to end slavery, Carpenter considered the first reading of the Proclamation “a scene second only in historical importance…to that of the Declaration of Independence.” As a result, he wrote in his memoir that he “endeavor[ed], as faithfully as possible, to represent the scene as it actually transpired; room, furniture, accessories, all were to be painted from the actualities.” The final painting, approved by President Lincoln, features Lincoln and his cabinet seated in the black walnut chairs—artifacts and witnesses to one of the most important moments in White House history.White House Historical Association
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Watch Meeting—December 31st 1862—Waiting for the Hour, 1863
William Tolman Carlton (1816-1888)
Oil on Canvas
William Tolman Carlton’s painting depicts a group of enslaved people gathering to countdown together before the Emancipation Proclamation officially took effect at midnight on January 1, 1863. The work itself is highly symbolic. The title of the piece is written on chains; a copy of the Proclamation and the American flag are visible on either side of the group; and an anchor, a symbol of hope, hangs off the pocket watch at center. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison gifted a copy of this painting to President Lincoln in 1864, paid for by subscribers of his antislavery newspaper, The Liberator. Lincoln called the piece a “spirited and admirable painting.”
Today, the painting in the White House Collection is an unsigned, undated version of that piece. It hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom.White House Collection/White House Historical Association
Notice the walnut chair in the bottom left corner of Bicknell’s painting below—a perfect depiction of the J. and J. W. Meeks’ cabinet chairs in the White House Collection. Bicknell’s final version of First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln is in the U.S. Senate Collection today.
Unfortunately, President Lincoln never saw the final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially abolished slavery in the United States. He was shot by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865—mere days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee.
Slavery in the United States officially ended with the amendment's ratification on December 6, 1865. The engraving below shows the congressional resolution for the amendment, which proclaimed: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Reading the Emancipation ProclamationU.S. Senate Collection
Lincoln AssassinationLibrary of Congress
Engraving of 13th AmendmentT.J. Levering accessed via Smithsonian National Museum of American History