Note:  This website was inspired by Andrew Levy’s 2001 article “The Anti-Jefferson,” about Robert Carter III, who freed more slaves than any other slaveholder in

American history.  Levy has written a book about Carter, The First Emancipator.  

I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of slavery or the

American character.  Details are available in the bibliography.

                                    

 

How many presidents owned slaves?  It ought to be a simple question but a search on the web produces a lot of contradictory answers.  One reason is that there are really two questions: 1.  How many presidents owned slaves during their lives?  2. How many presidents owned slaves while they were president?  In the table below I attempt to answer both questions.  I have also included selected quotations from the presidents and relevant actions they took. Anything in this font refers to something the president did while serving as president. Anything in this font refers to an activity of a member of the presidents family, rather than the president himself.   I would  appreciate hearing of any mistakes or omissions so that I can correct them. revised 9/08 (thanks to Damon Cannon for catching an error.)

Rob Lopresti

Of the first five presidents, four owned slaves.  All four of these owned slaves while they were president.

Of the next five presidents (#6-10), four owned slaves.  Only two of them owned slaves while they were president.

Of the next five presidents (#11-15), two owned slaves. Both of these two owned slaves while they were president.

Of the next three presidents (#16-18) two owned slaves. neither of them owned slaves while serving as president.

The last president to own slaves while in office was the twelfth president, Zachary Taylor (1849-1850).

The last president to own slaves at all was the eighteenth president, Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877).

So twelve of our presidents owned slaves and eight of them owned slaves while serving as president.
 

Were they just Men of their  time?

Ranking the Presidents

The Slave-owners in Your Wallet

Bibliography  (Citations)

 

 

President

Dates

State



Did he own slaves?



Quotations and Actions



1.  George Washington

1789-1797

VA

 

Yes.When GW took over Mount Vernon at age 22 there were 18 slaves. When he married he gained control of 200 more which technically belonged to the estate of his wife’s first husband.  By 1786 he owned 216 slaves. (Flexner,p114)

While GW was serving as president in Philadelphia a Pennsylvania law was passed freeing slaves whose owners had been citizens of the state for six months.  GW sent his two most valuable slaves home, telling them it was for his wife’s convenience.(Wilkins,p76)

In 1796 Oney (or Ona) Judge ran away to New Hampshire.She was one of GWs slaves - Marthas personal servant.  President GW asked the Treasury Secretary and a customs agent for help in getting her back,  by force, if necessary - but she never returned.(Wilkins. P82. also: Gerson)

When GW left the presidency he apparently left some house slaves behind in Philadelphia, knowing that under state law they would be quietly freed by having spent a certain amount of time in Pennsylvania(Flexner)

When he died in 1799 his will called for his manservant William Lee to be freed immediately, and given a pension.  The other slaves were to be freed when his widow died. Martha chose to free them two years later. According to Abigail Adams this was because MW feared her life might be in danger, since her death meant freedom for the slaves.(Hirschfield p 214) 

Neither GW nor MW could legally free the dower slaves which still belonged to the Custis estate.
 

 

1786:  I can only say that no man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition of (slavery)…  But when slaves who are happy & content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with & seduced to leave them it introduces more evils than it can cure."(Hirschfield,p187)


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2.  John Adams

1797-1801

Mass

 

No. 
JAs cousin  Samuel Adams  apparently received a slave named Surry as a gift in 1765.  Some sources say she remained a slave; others say Samuel freed her immediately.  In any case she stayed on as Samuel's  family cook for several decades - even after slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts by a bill Samuel introduced.
(Lewis) 
(thanks to Jim Farrell for a correction)

 

 

1820: I shudder when I think of the calamities which slavery is likely to produce in this country.  You would think me mad if I were to describe my anticipations.  If the gangrene is not stopped I can see nothing but insurrection of the blacks against the whites.  (Smith,p 138)

 

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3.  Thomas Jefferson

1801-1809

VA

 

Yes. TJ inherited many slaves. His wife brought a dowry of more than 100 slaves, and he purchased many more throughout his life. At some points he was one of the largest slaveowners in Virginia

 

In 1790 TJ gave his newly married daughter and her husband 1000 acres of land and 25 slaves.(Miller)

In 1798 TJ owned 141 slaves, many of them elderly.  Two years later he owned 93. (Bigelow,p537.)

One of TJs slaves was Sally Hemings, allegedly the half-sister of his deceased wife.  During TJs presidency a rumor appeared in print that she was his mistress.  TJ denied this story, which was also passed on as Hemings family tradition.  The youngest of Hemings six children (and the only one whose paternity can be traced through  DNA) definitely descended from the Jefferson line, either through TJ, his brother Randolph, or one of Randolphs sons.  TJ was in the vicinity of SH during each period of conception.(See Miller, p148-176:.)  For a discussion of the DNA issue see: http://tinyurl.com/ckfkk2 and: http://jeffersondna.com

TJ freed one of Hemings children and allowed another to run away unpursued.  Both of them were light enough to successfully pass for White.(See Miller, p165.) 

TJ freed five slaves in his will, all members of the Hemings family.  Sally was not among them; TJs daughter Martha freed her years later.(See Miller, p168.)

 

1776:  (King George III) has waged cruel waragainst human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms against us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he  also obtruded them thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another. -from TJ's draft of the Declaration of Independence.This paragraph was voted down by the Congressional Congress.(Jefferson, 1984. p 22.)


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4.  James Madison

1809-1817

VA

 

Yes. JM grew up in a slave-owning family and owned slaves all his life. 

In 1833  JM sold several of his farms but not his slaves.  A year later he sold 16 slaves to a relative - with their permission. (Brant, p637)

He did not free his slaves in his will. (Brant p640)

 

 

1819: "A general emancipation of slaves ought to be 1. gradual.  2. equitable & satisfactory to the individuals immediately concerned.  3.  consistent with the existing & durable prejudices of the nation...  To be consistent with existing and probably unalterable prejudices in the U.S. freed blacks ought to be permanently removed beyond the region occupied by or alloted to a White population." (Madison.Writings.p729)


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5. James Monroe

1817-1825

VA

 

Yes. JM inherited a slave named Ralph.  When he owned the farm Highland he owned 30 to 40 slaves.  (James Monroe and Slavery.)

 

1801:  We perceive an existing evil which commenced under our Colonial System, with which we are not properly chargeable, or if at all not in the present degree, and we acknowledge the extreme difficulty of remedying it."(Monroe, 1903.v3, p 292-294.)

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6.  John Quincy Adams

1825-1829

Mass

 

No.



 

1841:  "What can I do for the cause of God and man, for the progress of human emancipation, for the suppression of the African slave-trade?  Yet my conscience presses me on; let me but die upon the breach."(Adams, p 519)

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7.  Andrew Jackson

1829-1837

SC

 

Yes.  AJ bought his first slave, a young woman, in 1788.By 1794 his business included slave trading and he had purchased at least 16 slaves.(Remini,p.37, 55)

 

In the 1820s Jackson owned about 160 slaves.(James,p31)

He did not free his slaves in his will. 

 

 

1822:  "As far as lenity can be extended to these unfortunate creatures I wish you to do so; subordination must be obtained first, and then good  treatment."(James,p31)

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8.  Martin Van Buren

1837-1841

NY

 

Yes, but not while he was president.  When MVB was young his father owned six slaves.(Cole,p13)

 

His only slave, Tom, ran away in 1814 (approx.).When Tom was found 8 years later, MVB offered him for sale to the finder for $50. (Cole,p110)

 

1837:  (Before the election I declared that:)I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and  uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists." (Van Buren)

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9.  William Henry Harrison

1841

VA

 

Yes, but not while he was president. 

 

WHHs father and grandfather owned many slaves.  WHH took seven of them with him to the Northwest Territory in 1800 where slavery was illegal. They  then became indentured servants on terms

undistinguishable from slavery.  (Clanin, p1, and Cleaves,p47) 

 

1801: WHH purchase a runaway slave and later freed him.   He stayed on for many years as a servant.(Cleaves,p351)

1804: WHH was appointed Governor of Indiana territory, which was free soil.  He attempted to have slavery made legal there, but generally followed the law by keeping Blacks as indentured servants who were free after about a decade of service. (Cleaves,p351) 

 

 

1820:   We cannot emancipate the slaves of the other states without their consent (except) by producing a convulsion which would undo us all.  We must wait the slow but certain progress of those good principles which are everywhere gaining ground, and which assuredly will ultimately prevail. (Cleaves.p254)


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10.  John Tyler

1841-1845

VA

 

Yes.



 

1838:  (God) works most inscrutably to the understandings of men; - the negro is torn from Africa, a barbarian, ignorant and idolatrous; he is restored civilized, enlightened, and a Christian.(Tyler.P569)

 

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11.  James K. Polk

1845-1849

NC

 

Yes.  In 1832 he had fifteen slaves.

 

1830:  A slave dreads the punishment of stripes (i.e. whipping) more than he does imprisonment, and that description of punishment has, besides, a beneficial effect upon his fellow-slaves.” (Sellers,p186) 

 

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12.  Zachary Taylor

1849-1850

VA

 

Yes. ZT's father owned 26 slaves in 1800.  (Hamilton,p30)

 

In 1847 ZT owned more than 100 slaves.  (Hamilton,p18)

ZT supposedly never sold a slave. (Hamilton.P31)

 

 

1847:  So far as slavery is concerned, we of the south must throw ourselves on the constitution and defend our rights under it to the last, and when arguments will no longer suffice, we will appeal to the sword, if necessary.” (Hamilton. p45)

 

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13.  Millard Fillmore

1850-1853

NY

 

No.



 

1850:  “God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the constitution, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.”  (Rayback,p162)

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14.  Franklin Pierce

1853-1857

NH

 

No.



 

1838:  The citizen of New Hampshire is no more responsible, morally or politically for the existence and continuance of this domestic institution (slavery) in Virginia or Maryland, than he would be for the existence of any similar institutions in France or Persia.  Why? Because these are matters over which the States...retained the sole and exclusive control, and for which they are alone responsible...  It is admitted that domestic slavery exists here (Washington, DC) in its mildest form.  That part of the population are bound together by friendship and the nearer relations of life.  They are attached to the families in which they have lived from childhood.  They are comfortably provided for, and apparently contented." (Congressional Globe 1838. v6n1 p54)

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15.  James Buchanan

1857-1861

PA

 

Technically no.  While running for the senate from Pennsylvania JB discovered that his sisters husband owned two slaves in Virginia. JB purchased them, immediately converting them to his indentured servants. Daphne Cook, aged 22, was indentured for seven years. Ann Cook, age 5, was indentured for 23 years.(Klein,p100.)
 

JB was the only president who never married.  For more than a decade he shared a home with Senator William Rufus King of Alabama, leading to speculation, then and now, that they were homosexuals.   King was a slaveowner and some historians think his influence was the reason  JB was more pro-South and pro-slavery than the typical Pennsylvania politician.  (The Other Buchanan Controversy.)

 

 

1836:  "The natural tendency of their publications is to produce dissatisfaction and revolt among the slaves, and to incite their wild passions to vengeance...  Many a mother clasps her infant to her bosom when she retires to rest, under dreadful apprehensions that she may be aroused from her slumbers by the savage yells of the slaves by whom she is surrounded.  These are the works of the abolitionists." (Curtis v1 p317) 

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16.  Abraham Lincoln

1861-1865

KY

 

No.



 

1865:  I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others.  Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”  ( Lincoln, 1953, v8, p360-1)

 

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17.  Andrew Johnson

1865-1869

NC

 

Yes, but not while he was president.  AJ bought his first slave, a manservant named Sam, in 1837. He eventually owned 8.  (Thomas, p87)

 

AJ owned slaves at the beginning of the Civil War.  He said that some of them came back voluntarily after being confiscated by the Confederates, and these he treated as freemen. (Johnson, v6, p 549.)

If he didn’t free all of his individually he certainly freed them in 1864 when, as military governor of Tennessee, he proclaimed freedom for all slaves in the state. (Johnson, p.xxxvii)

 

 

1865:  “You tell me, friends, of the liberation of the colored people of the South.  But have you thought of the millions of Southern white  people who have been liberated by the war?”  (Thomas, p347)


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18.  Ulysses S. Grant

1869-1877

OH

 

Yes.  The only evidence that USG owned slaves is a document he signed in 1859 freeing one, William Jones. However, Grant certainly had some control over and use of slaves his father-in-law gave his wife.(Simon, p347)

 

1885: "The (South) was burdened with an institution abhorrent to all civilized people not brought up under it, and one which degraded labor, kept it in ignorance and enervated the governing class...  Soon the slaves would have outnumbered the masters, and, not being in sympathy with them, would have risen in their might and exterminated them.  The war was expensive to the South, as well as to the North, both in blood and treasure, but it was worth all it cost." (Grant, 1885, v1, p507-8)

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