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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Enslaved Household of President Andrew Jackson

This article is part of the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative. Explore the Timeline

In January 1829, less than two months before he became president, Andrew Jackson ordered an inventory of his slaves. The inventory recorded the names, ages, and familial relationships of ninety-five enslaved individuals who lived and worked at The Hermitage, his Tennessee plantation.1 When President-elect Jackson left for the White House, he brought some of these enslaved people with him. The 1830 census listed fourteen enslaved individuals in Jackson’s household – eight women and six men – and many scholars suggest that his household grew during the course of his presidency.2 Jackson also made significant improvements to the White House during his administration, including the construction of the North Portico and a new stable, as well as the addition of running water to the house, projects that almost certainly made use of enslaved labor, either from Jackson’s own household or hired out from other slave owners in Washington, D.C.3

White House Historical Association

Unlike some other slave-owning presidents, Jackson did not leave behind many public statements or writings on the morality of slavery. He never explicitly defended the institution, but he also never questioned it or displayed any qualms about his own role as a slave owner. The paternalistic ideal of slavery, common in this era, claimed that slave ownership was morally acceptable as long as owners served as paternal figures for their enslaved people, offering food, shelter, and other necessities. In managing his own human property, Jackson sought a balance between authority and kindness, punishment and forbearance.4 He fretted about whether one enslaved man’s death “might have been produced by the illtreatment [sic] of the overseer” and insisted that those he hired to manage the farm “treat my negroes with humanity.”5

There may have been genuine compassion behind this approach, but it was also a carefully calculated one. Relatively healthy and well-treated enslaved people were more likely to work hard and less likely to run away or revolt. Slavery was also the primary source of Jackson’s personal wealth, and he wanted to protect his assets. When he wrote to Graves W. Steele, the overseer accused of causing an enslaved man’s death at The Hermitage, he demanded “a full account of your guardianship with the loss of my property.”6 This choice of language suggests that he cared more about the financial impact of the death than he did about the man’s life.

At The Hermitage, enslaved families would have lived in cabins like this one.

Library of Congress

Like many slave owners, President Jackson did not always live up to his stated ideals. He ordered harsh, even brutal, punishment for enslaved people who disobeyed orders. When an enslaved woman named Betty was judged to be “guilty of some improper conduct,” he wrote to his overseer that she “must be ruled with the cowhide” and should be given fifty lashes the next time she misbehaved.7 When an enslaved man ran away from The Hermitage, the punishment was even more extreme. He put an advertisement in the Tennessee Gazette that promised a reward for the man’s return, “and ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred,” which would almost certainly have killed the runaway man.8 More importantly, even when Jackson did live up to paternalistic ideals, the enslaved people he owned could not leave his property without his consent, had no access to education, and worked long hours with no pay.

As is often the case with enslaved families, the individuals we know the most about are those who worked closely with the president, and thus appear in the written record created by Jackson and his family members. George, an enslaved man and the son of longtime Hermitage cook Old Hannah, served as Andrew Jackson’s manservant. He was in his early twenties when Jackson brought him to the White House.9 He slept in the president’s bedroom, on a pallet next to his bed, so that he was accessible any time Jackson needed him. A manservant was always on call, with no real time off. George remained at the president’s side for decades, whether he wanted to or not. When Jackson died in 1845, George was standing next to his sickbed.10

George had no immediate family of his own when he came to the White House, but others were separated from their family members. Charles was a carriage driver and had been Andrew Jackson’s manservant during his military campaigns. He spent some portion of the Jackson presidency at the White House, but his wife Charlotte and their three young children remained at The Hermitage.11 Jackson trusted Charles enough to use him as a courier, so he may have occasionally seen his family when transporting messages and goods between Washington and Tennessee, but they were mostly separated for years.12

Although contemporary accounts suggest that George was at Andrew Jackson’s side when he died, this Currier & Ives print and other popular depictions of the president’s deathbed leave him out.

Library of Congress

That separation seems to have strained the relationship between Charles and Charlotte. Our best evidence about their lives comes from Jackson’s correspondence with a potential buyer for Charlotte and the three children. In November of 1830, he wrote two letters to Robert Johnstone Chester, offering Charlotte and the three children to him for $800. Jackson wrote that Charlotte had specifically asked to be sold to Chester, “being disconted [sic] where she now is.”13 Jackson emphasized how this sale would be in the best interest of the enslaved people involved. He had only purchased Charlotte in the first place, he wrote, because Charles had asked him to, and he was only willing to sell her now because Charles had agreed to it. “I did not wish to separate her & her children, from charles, particularly his children,” Jackson wrote, ignoring the reality that he had already separated them by bringing Charles to Washington, D.C. and leaving the rest of the family in Tennessee. Jackson had had every intention of sending Charles home until he heard of this request: “I enquired of charles whether he was contented to part with her & the children; he replied in the affirmative.”14

The sale, however, likely never happened. Charlotte and her children appear in Hermitage records in the 1840s and 1850s, long past the date of this proposed transaction.15 With no direct record of Charles' or Charlotte’s perspectives, we have to rely on Jackson’s letters to speculate how they felt about the entire situation and what might have changed. Maybe their relationship had ended and Charlotte did ask Jackson to sell her to Chester, but then had a change of heart. Perhaps the extended separation put such a strain on their marriage that Charles would willingly leave his wife, but he balked at the idea of abandoning three children under the age of seven. Or maybe Jackson and Chester simply could not agree on a price for a woman who Jackson called “one of the best servants I ever saw, were it not for her ungovernable temper, and tongue.”16 Whatever the truth might be in this case, it appears that Charles’ family was spared the permanent separation that a sale would have created. Other members of Andrew Jackson’s household were not so fortunate.

In fact, several members of Jackson’s enslaved staff came into the White House through purchase, rather than traveling from Tennessee. Historian William Seale argued that Jackson increased the number of enslaved people and decreased the number of free, hired servants in his household over the course of his presidency to save money, so he may have viewed the purchase of additional enslaved laborers as a cost-cutting measure.17 It was a greater investment upfront than hired labor, but it yielded a lifetime of labor for the president.

Excerpt from Andrew Jackson’s bank book for April 16, 1832, showing a check to his adopted nephew Major A.J. Donelson for “a mulato girl, slave, bought by him for Andrew Jackson, which he has given to Mary Rachel, daughter of A. J. and Emily Donelson”

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

In late 1831, Jackson purchased a “servant Boy – named Adam” from Colonel John Gibbons Stuart of Virginia.18

Adam worked in the White House for at least a year, and maybe longer.19

Another enslaved child, an eight-year-old girl named Emeline, came into the White House early in 1832. She was purchased as a gift for Mary Emily Donelson, Jackson’s grandniece, by his nephew, Major Andrew Jackson Donelson. Donelson made the purchase on the president’s behalf and Jackson reimbursed him for the girl afterward.20

Mary Emily lived in the White House with her father, who served as the president’s private secretary, along with many members of her extended family. Emeline, on the other hand, probably never lived with her family again.

The president relied heavily on his family members to help run the White House. In addition to Major Donelson acting as his private secretary, his niece Emily Donelson and daughter-in-law Sarah Yorke Jackson served as White House hostesses. With such an extensive household full of relatives, Jackson needed a large domestic staff. While in D.C., he purchased Gracy Bradley and her sister Louisa to help fill this need. Gracy was a skilled seamstress and also acted as Sarah Yorke Jackson’s lady's maid. Louisa became a nurse for Jackson’s grandchildren.21

Excerpt from Andrew Jackson’s bank book for March 23, 1832, showing a check of $400 “to son for Negro Girl Grace”

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

In addition to running the household and serving the family, Andrew Jackson used enslaved labor to support his favorite hobby – breeding and racing horses. In April 1832, Graves W. Steele, Jackson’s Hermitage overseer, wrote to tell him that three promising colts were ready to travel to Washington, D.C. He dispatched three enslaved boys – Byron, Jesse, and Jim – along with horse trainer William Alexander to bring them to the White House.22 Byron was about twelve years old at the time and Jim may have been as young as nine; Jesse’s age is unknown.23 Another letter refers to “three race horses with three race riders” sent to D.C., so they may have been sent to serve as jockeys.24

The matter of transporting these colts to Washington appears several times in the Jackson papers, largely because of miscommunication between the White House and The Hermitage. John Eaton and John Overton, the president’s friends, arrived at The Hermitage with their wives the day after Byron, Jesse, Jim, and Alexander set off with the colts. Eaton and Overton worried that if word got out that the president was racing horses in Washington, “every gossip mouth & newspaper would proclaim on it,” to “injurious effect.” Running the horses under Major Donelson’s name, as the president planned to do, would not fool anyone. To protect Jackson’s reputation, Eaton and Overton decided to send Andrew Jackson Hutchings, Jackson’s adopted son, to fetch the party and bring them back to The Hermitage.25 President Jackson was livid at the delay in executing his orders, although he largely blamed Steele and Hutchings for the decision. He wrote several letters lamenting the “astonishing” and “foolish conduct” of his family and servants in Tennessee and demanding that the party be sent on to D.C. as originally planned.26 The slow transit of information between D.C. and Tennessee in 1832 delayed the transport of these horses by enslaved workers for several weeks.

Excerpt from John Henry Eaton’s April 16, 1832 letter to Andrew Jackson, where he notes that the “three race horses and three race riders” have been recalled to The Hermitage

Library of Congress

On June 13, Jackson finally reported that Byron, Jesse, and Jim had arrived at the White House.27

The matter seems to have dropped off the president’s radar after their arrival, although in late July he noted in a letter to his son that “the colts & boys are all well & doing well.”28

That update was probably the only news the boys’ families received during their time apart, if it was communicated to them at all. We know the three young jockeys spent several months at the White House. In November, when the racing season was over, Jackson wrote to his son, Andrew Jackson Jr., that Byron and Jim were on their way home. He instructed his son to “take Byron in the House & learn him neatness & industry,” training him for future household service.29

The third enslaved youth, Jesse, is not mentioned in this letter. It is unclear whether he was sent home or remained at the White House.

President Andrew Jackson was an avid horseman. The horses shown in this nineteenth-century print would primarily have been cared for and ridden by enslaved people.

Library of Congress

Jesse’s disappearance from the record is unfortunately not unique. There is so much we do not know about the lives of the enslaved White House staff under Andrew Jackson. The 1829 Hermitage slave inventory was the last one Jackson completed, and it says nothing about each person’s work assignment or who might have been brought to the White House. We have been able to recover the names, occupations, and experiences of a handful of enslaved people from President Jackson’s papers and other contemporary sources, but much of the story is still missing. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville is working to publish all of Jackson’s papers and current volumes only extend through 1832, less than halfway through Jackson’s presidency. As new volumes are published, we hope to learn more about the enslaved individuals who worked in the White House during this time.

Thank you to Dr. Daniel Feller, Director of The Papers of Andrew Jackson, and Marsha Mullin, VP Museum Services & Chief Curator at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, for their contributions to this article.