As statues tumble and monuments fall, the question of the association between great American figures and slavery has never been more relevant in modern times. In some cases, statues are felled because the owner was a slaveholder and/or was active in the slave trade. Whilst the desecration of monuments, especially ones with no relation to slaveholders, is controversial, it is also important to know the history behind it.
Nearly all of the early presidents had an association with slavery, with a select few not supporting the institution. Even some who spoke of emancipation had no problem holding slaves themselves. This list shows how involved each president, from number of slaves to their views on the subject.
George Washington – Slaveholder
Born to a wealthy Virginian planter family, it’s hardly shocking that Washington was born and died with slaves. Upon his father’s death when Washington was eleven, he first inherited slaves personally – roughly ten. As he grew older, he purchased more, but the number didn’t reach the hundreds until he married Martha Custis, a very wealthy widow.
It is believed that Washington treated his slaves more harshly than others, especially in their accommodation. He didn’t support harsh punishment, but that was more out of pragmatism than out of concern for their wellbeing.
Several of his slaves escaped, including his chef Hercules and maid Ona Judge, who Martha planned to give her as a wedding gift to her granddaughter. Many enslaved people in Mount Vernon resisted in other ways, such as purposefully stealing things and feigning illness.
After The Revolution, Washington became more interested in the question of slavery. He initially didn’t discuss his position publically, but eventually came to the conclusion that emancipation should happen very slowly. Like most in his time, he believed African-Americans to be inferior to whites and wished that they could be ‘properly’ educated before any sort of emancipation occurred.
When slaves escaped, Washington did everything in his power to track them down. In his will, he asked that all his slaves be freed after his wife’s death. The only exception was his personal slave, William Lee, who he’d had for decades; Washington freed him immediately. He stipulated that all younger slaves be educated and taught a trade before being freed at 25 and that none could be sold before their emancipation. Out of all of the Founding Fathers, he was the only one to at least attempt to free his slaves.
Upon his death, his wishes were mainly met; however, many of the slaves technically belonged to Martha and the estate. Martha had stronger pro-slavery feelings than her husband and also held stronger racial prejudices, only freeing the slaves she owned herself after being uncomfortable around them. Upon her death, the remaining slaves went to her grandson.
John Adams – Non-slaveholder
John Adams did not hold slaves. His wife Abigail was also strangely egalitarian for the time, being even more radical in her hatred of the institution. Whilst Adams abhorred slavery, he didn’t call for its dissolution in order to appease the South in the infancy of the USA. He also disagreed with using African-Americans as soldiers in the Revolutionary War, again in appeasement.
In his legal career, he did represent slaves suing for freedom. Whilst he was not open about slavery during his political career, Adams did strongly oppose the expansion of slavery into new territories. His wish was for abolition to occur slowly in order for it to work, accurately predicting that it would one day cause divisions so great that it would split the country apart.
His views can be summed up succinctly in his own words:
“I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave, though I have lived for many years in times, when the practice was not disgraceful, when the best men in my vicinity thought it not inconsistent with their character, and when it has cost me thousands of dollars for the labor and subsistence of free men, which I might have saved by the purchase of negroes at times when they were very cheap.“
Thomas Jefferson – Slaveholder
Let’s face it – Thomas Jefferson was a genius and brilliant politician, but he was probably one of the worst presidents when it came to racial issues.
Strangely, Jefferson wrote many anti-slavery laws and spoke out against the institution, calling it a “moral depravity”. He banned transportation of slaves into Virginia and pushed to ban slavery in the Northwestern territories. The children of Sally Hemmings (later discovered to likely be his) were either permitted to escape or were freed in his will. Jefferson wished for slavery to end slowly, worrying that doing it to fast would lead to uprising and that uneducated African-Americans would have nowhere to go. His proposal was for the government to purchase all slave children, train them and then send them to live in a colony.
Though that may have sounded pretty progressive back in the day, we must acknowledge that Jefferson did hold slaves – over 600 in fact. He also strongly believed that blacks were inferior to whites in every way and also strongly supported segregation in all areas of life. Jefferson believed the Missouri Compromise would lead to the breakup of the union and happily used states as collateral – he was in a lot of debt.
As a slave owner, Jefferson took a very paternalistic attitude towards his slaves. Whilst Jefferson was willing to keep families together and educate them, he was also brutal in punishment – though not as bad as some others. Children were not exempt from whippings and beatings. He took a keen interest in his plantation’s running when he was at Monticello.
We also must discuss the issue of Sally Hemings. She was the half-sister of his late wife Martha Wayles, the product of John Wayles and Betty Hemings, a slave. Jefferson never remarried after Martha’s early death, due to him making a promise on her deathbed. Sally was brought with him to Paris when he was Ambassador to France in order to care for his daughter Polly. It is believed she was sixteen when she fell pregnant with their first child, Jefferson being thirty years older. They had five more children together. As stated before, they were all freed.
Sally Hemings was a teenage girl enslaved by a powerful master. He owned her. Whether or not she agreed to the sex, it was clearly rape – she probably would have had no choice. She had children with him, all of whom lived in slavery with her before she was freed. It was far from unusual at the time, as many white slave owners had black concubines, but we can’t pretend that it was anywhere close to morally acceptable. Regardless of his “holding the wolf by the ears” view on slavery, he held hundreds of people in bondage. Some would say he’s a hypocrite or merely a conundrum – hated slavery, but wasn’t willing to let them go.
James Madison – Slaveholder
Madison held over 100 slaves, which was not quite as many as Washington and Jefferson. As a southerner, he believed it was necessary to his culture, but was uneasy with having a society that depended on slaves and also thought it made the South too aristocratic. He supported slavery moving into new territories, but opposed the importing of new slaves. Madison was one of the key members of the American Colonization Society and pushed for a state in Africa for blacks. He also proposed the infamous “Three Fifths Compromise”.
The fourth president was seen as ‘kind’ for a slave owner, asking they be treated kindly. Madison personally struggled with his support for a republic and reliance on slavery, but never once considered freeing them. Heavily in debt in his later years, he sold several slaves and did not free any in his lifetime or in his will. The remaining slaves were left to his widow, Dolley, who sold slaves without consent – contrary to what he asked. Upon her passing, they went to her son, who freed few – he sold the rest, as he was also in debt.
James Monroe – Slaveholder
Monroe held less than one hundred slaves, many of whom he took to the White House. He also held anti-slavery feelings, such as supporting federal funds to send freed slaves abroad. Still, he personally held slaves and was not a huge activist in the fight. Monroe did not often talk about slavery publically, but he did encourage Virginia to emancipate his slaves.
A slave named Gabriel Prosser rounded up a large group of slaves in 1800, planning to kidnap Monroe and negotiate for his freedom. The plan was foiled, and about a quarter of the slaves were executed.
Like his predecessor, Monroe was active in the African Colonization Society. The capital of Liberia, Monrovia, is named after him.
John Quincy Adams – Non-slaveholder
Quincy Adams was probably the most anti-slavery president, though his views did evolve over time. The Adams family did not own slaves, as John and Abigail both strongly opposed it. His hated of slavery came later in his life, one that led him to break with his good friend John C. Calhoun. Famously, Quincy Adams represented the slaves in the Amistad case, pro-bono. He won the case.
It was when Quincy Adams was in Congress that his strong anti-slavery sentiments came into play. During this time, southern representatives introduced a gag rule that prevented any mention of slavery or tabling of laws regarding it. Quincy Adams ignored this, managing to evade every attempt to keep him quiet – he was seen as very skilled politician.
He also framed it as a free speech issue, angry that Congress would dare censure discussion. Whilst he didn’t wish for immediate abolition – seeing it as a threat to the union and something that could cause riots – he spoke passionately against the slave trade and owning slaves.
Andrew Jackson – Slaveholder
Jackson was a prominent slaveholder and passionate defender of the institution. Whilst he was criticised during his Presidential campaign, he never wavered and freed no slaves. It is believed that Jackson owned around 200 slaves.
He was could also be very cruel to his slaves and did not view them with any pity. When a slave died on his overseer’s watch, he was more concerned about the loss of a financial asset than the death of the man. The punishments were brutal, including whippings numbering 100. Unlike Washington and Jefferson, he provided no education.
When abolitionist pamphlets made their way into the south, Jackson pushed for them to be prohibited. Upon his death, all of his slaves were given to his adopted son/wife’s nephew, Andrew Jackson Jr.
Martin Van Buren – Slaveholder
Van Buren was a passionate anti-slavery speaker in later life, but did not start that way. He only owned one slave personally. This slave escaped and though he tried to sell the slave to his founder, the deal never went through and the man was freed.
In order to shore up southern support for his election, Van Buren promised he did not support abolition in slave owning states and cast the tie-breaking vote in the abolitionist pamphlets mentioned in Jackson’s section. Like several others here, Van Buren was personally opposed to slavery but allowed it to happen.
It was in his later life that Van Buren became more anti-slavery in his views. He published an anti-slavery manifesto, claiming that the Founding Fathers wished for eventual abolition. After losing the presidency, he ran in the next term for the Free Soil Party, a single-issue party that wanted to prevent the spread of slavery into the new Western territories. Van Buren returned to the Democrats later on, but supported the Union in the Civil War.
William Henry Harrison – Slaveholder
Though he joined an abolition group in his youth, Harrison was a supporter of slavery for most of his life. Upon inheriting about a dozen slaves, he took several to the territory of Indiana. Indiana was a state in which slavery was not allowed – so Harrison made a law that forced slaves to become indentured servants. This was later repealed, with Harrison freeing his slaves several years later as a result. He did attempt to get Congress to allow slavery in Indiana.
In his time in the Ohio Senate, Harrison voted for a bill which permitted petty thieves to be sold into servitude. He said he had no power to get rid of slavery in D.C. and also said he was only in favour of abolition if all freed slaves were sent to Africa. Harrison later stopped using the abolition group to prove his anti-slavery credentials, eventually saying that it was merely a humane group.
John Tyler – Slaveholder
Tyler held about 70 slaves, and continued to hold them during his short presidency. He, like others before, personally did not like slavery, but again, had them himself. In terms of slavery as policy, Tyler advocated for it to be allowed in the western territories in hopes it would die out in Virginia and other places. Tyler was concerned that the Missouri Compromise would cause division, hence why he did not support it.
He held the view that the federal government had no place in abolition, as a strong supporter of states’ rights. As a slaveholder, he never bothered to justify it, but also never freed any slaves. Little is known about his treatment as a master.
James K. Polk – Slaveholder
Polk was uninterested in talking slavery in public and politics and got the Democratic nomination partially because of his support for it. When he was President, tensions regarding slavery were so high that he did not decide it was politically favourable to advertise that he was a slaveholder.
He portrayed himself as benevolent, but was fairly cruel. Polk mainly purchased children and had no qualms about splitting them up when it suited him – his 20+ slaves were mainly underage. He wanted a comfortable life for himself and his wife Sarah and saw having slaves as more financially sound than paid labourers. Punishments for slaves were fairly severe, as he supported whipping and other cruelty to keep them in line. Polk said of abolitionists that they are “fanatical and wicked agitators”.
Zachary Taylor – Slaveholder
Owning over 100 slaves, Taylor was the last to hold them whilst in office. Many thought he would be in favour of expanding slavery as territories grew, but were shocked to learn he deemed it impractical. Taylor was devoted to the Union and worried that the issue would lead to a split in the country. At the time he came into office, this was a national issue.
Taylor only served for a year and three months, dying in office. He had planned to address the subject, but his short term meant he could not.
The slaves were fed well and not punished, but again this was more down to pragmatism than any care for their wellbeing:
“I too have been all my life industrious and frugal, and that the fruits thereof are mainly invested in slaves, of whom I own three hundred.“
Millard Fillmore – Non-slaveholder
Fillmore never held any slaves and was personally against it. He also saw it as an issue that shouldn’t be political – he personally opposed it, but did not believe the federal government had the power to do anything about it.
The 13th President did not wish for slavery to spread, but was also not politically active in preventing it. He worried that the Fugitive Slave Act would mean freed people were wrongly taken, but also did not make a huge fuss of it.
Franklin Pierce – Non-slaveholder
Pierce did not hold slaves, but as President and politician, did nothing to stop it. He strongly opposed abolitionism and was of the opinion that slaves were happy in their family units and content with their lot in life. Pierce further dismissed them as a minority against the millions of freemen and whites.
His enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and the signing of the Kansas-Nebraska led to an increase in slavery, as well as bloodshed and rioting.
James Buchanan – Records Disagree
Buchanan called slavery a “great political and great moral evil,” but did not believe it was an easy thing to solve. He blamed the British for bringing it into the USA and also believed freeing slaves, especially in the south, would make them the masters.
It is questionable whether he held slaves. In the traditional sense, he did not. Buchanan discovered that his brother-in-law owned two slaves, purchased them, and then made them indentured servants. Though they were not slaves anymore, they were bought as them and then forced into them into what essentially was forced labour.
Abraham Lincoln – Non-slaveholder
Lincoln is known as the ‘Great Emancipator,’ but he had a complicated legacy. He was never a true abolitionist and thought that blacks would never be equal, that they instead should have their own colony – though he was critical of the American Colonisation Society.
His aim was to prevent the spread of slavery into new territories and states, as opposed to banning outright. Lincoln, as was common for his day, held very racist views, calling slaves ‘poor little creatures.’ His election was one of the precursors to the Civil War, something that gave him the go ahead to act upon slavery.
Lincoln put pressure on the border states and managed to abolish slavery in D.C. by compensating owners. Congress eventually passed a law banning slavery in federal territories, but it was not until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 that it was banned in the confederate states. Of course, it did not happen overnight – Texas was the last to end slavery in late 1865, and the 13th Amendment was ratified that same year.
Andrew Johnson – Slaveholder
Johnson held a handful of slaves. As a Southern Democrat, he generally went along with pro-slavery legislation and thinking. When he was a member of the Tennessee Legislature, Johnson pushed for the 3/5th compromise for the state, but this did not go ahead. Johnson did not consider someone doing labour a slave.
He initially worried that ending slavery would lead to insurrection – “blood, rape and rapine”. Johnson wanted to take things slow, wanting to use the Emancipation Proclamation as a way to punish the Confederacy. He encouraged people to hire blacks as labourers as opposed to slaves. Like Lincoln, he was opposed to the mixing of races and believed they could not live in harmony, believing also in colonisation.
When he became Military Governor of Tennessee and later VP, his attitudes towards ending slavery became a lot more apparent. Upon the freeing of slaves, Johnson warned against full suffrage for blacks, believing that it would cause racial strife.
As a slaveholder, he was very paternalistic.
Ulysses S. Grant – Slaveholder
Grant’s father was such a strident abolitionist, and his wife Julia’s family staunch slaveholders, that none of them attended the wedding of Ulysses and his bride. He gained a slave from his father-in-law, but felt very uncomfortable with it and eventually freed the man. At this point, he was not yet the abolitionist we know.
After emancipation, Grant said this:
“The civilized world has learned the consequence. Four millions of human beings held as chattels have been liberated; the ballot has been given to them; the free schools of the country have been opened to their children. The nation still lives, and the people are just as free to avoid social intimacy with the blacks as ever they were, or as they are with white people.“
During his Presidency, Grant was very favourable to civil rights. He allowed for blacks to serve on juries and also pushed for them to have political representation, which led to African-American serving in Congress for the first time. Most notably, he created the Justice Department, effectively smashing the first incarnation of the Klu Klux Klan. Unfortunately, the crooked 1876 election led to the Compromise of 1877 – southerners supported Rutherford B. Hayes’ claim to the presidency if Reconstruction ended – which it did.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article identified Jefferson’s wife as Mary, not Martha and simplified the timeline of the end of slavery. This has been corrected.