Ties That Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves By Marie Jenkins Schwartz
Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017, 420 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Martha Saxton
In Ties That Bound, Marie Jenkins Schwartz, who has written about children in slavery, turns to the relationships Martha Washington, Martha (Patsy) Jefferson Randolph, and Dolley Madison had with the slaves in their families. The sum of these tales conveys, with even greater power than the individual distasteful details, the ugliness and personal corruption that almost inevitably infected people who owned other people. Her stories testify to slave-owners’ daily temptations to be guided by greed, laziness, and injustice. Her portraits reveal their matter-of-fact acceptance of people as capital, as collateral, and as wombs for producing more capital. And the women Schwartz studies, she makes clear, could have made other choices.
The lives of these women span the mid-eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. Martha Washington, born in 1731, grew up toward the end of the roughest era of master-slave relations, when African captives were being brutalized into servitude. She never questioned the utility or morality of slavery.
Patsy Randolph and Dolley Madison lived into the paternalistic era of the nineteenth century. Enslaved parents had started training their children to adopt protective coatings of outward subservience. Consequently, owners commanded with less overt coercion than before. The theater of paternalism could obscure to owners and even sometimes to the enslaved, how slavery’s logic corroded any bargain and overturned any commitment the ruler made to the ruled. Paternalism made it significantly easier for slave owners, like Randolph and Madison, to think well both of slavery and of themselves as slave owners.
Schwartz’s book largely avoids the pitfall of studying how slaves were treated, a subject kept alive long after its usefulness by the hollow niceties of paternalism. Schwartz knows that even posing the question of whether someone was a “good mistress” does little or nothing to illuminate slavery as an institution. This is not to argue that how owners treated their slaves was not important to individual slaves; of course it was. But in the end, kindness and paternalism had no effect on the system. But even a scholar as familiar with slavery as Schwartz shows how difficult it is to write about the subject. For example, she writes “Martha (Patsy’s mother) Jefferson, like Martha Washington, demonstrated a willingness to tolerate slavery’s most unsavory side so long as work of the family members advanced her position and those of her husband and children.” It is probably impossible to select slavery’s “most unsavory side”—or for that matter, to identify the “more savory” sides that the statement implies. To her credit, Schwartz focuses mainly on the exploitation of the labor of enslaved people over analyses of treatment. She describes the gargantuan quantities of work these First Ladies got out of their captives, usually taking credit for it themselves, as well as the ways they monetized both their slaves’ bodies and those of their future offspring.
By the ends of their lives, these First Ladies all chose to protect their financial interests and those of their children rather than—in Martha Washington’s and (allegedly) Dolley Madison’s cases—adhering to their husbands’ desires and freeing their slaves. Thomas Jefferson hoped that any slaves who might have to be sold could choose their own buyers. But that would not be the case. A lifetime of owning slaves had driven out whatever moral doubts Patsy Randolph and the other First Ladies may ever have entertained about the institution, and widowhood empowered them to make the most of their human property.
Schwartz’s complex and believable portraits integrate the virtues and graces of these powerful women with their sense of entitlement and steely command of large numbers of captives. Schwartz captures Martha Washington’s deliberate, remarkable rise from her childhood in the family of a middling planter to become the wife—and soon the young widow—of a Virginia grandee. Later, in marrying George Washington, himself famously eager to get ahead, she collaborated in climbing to the top of Virginia’s planter aristocracy. That depended on owning hundreds of slaves.
Like Martha, George Washington was a tough master. However, after the Revolution, his views began to change. After decades of criticizing slaves, Washington began criticizing slavery itself. Husband and wife came to differ so much on the subject that on his deathbed he asked her to burn his early will in front of him, so that he could die assured that only his later will, which freed his slaves, would be his true legacy.
George Washington’s will specified, with characteristic precision, that the emancipation of his slaves (not Martha’s, over whom he had no control) should occur only after his wife’s death. This would give time to prepare to the many slaves who were in families in which those owned by George would become free and those owned by Martha would not. However, Martha did not wait. She did not wish to support more than 100 freed people until her death—although George had carefully calculated the estate’s ability to do so—and she was afraid that restive slaves might hasten her end. She rushed his protective emancipation process, and neither she nor any of her descendants, nor any of Washington’s nephews or nieces, followed his example.
Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Patsy Randolph served as his First Lady because his wife had died. Randolph spent time in the White House when her father summoned her. She acted as hostess and tried unsuccessfully to restore his reputation as a wholesome family man after the journalist James Callendar exposed his relationship with Sally Hemings in 1802.
Like Mary Chesnut, whose Civil War diary was published decades later, Randolph found herself in the throes of the woman slaveholders’ classic dilemma. She had seen the men in her family father enslaved offspring; even more traumatic, she had grown up with her father’s concubine, Sally Hemings, who was only slightly older than she and with whom she shared a grandfather. Hemings had served Patsy in Paris. Jefferson bought both girls fashionable clothes, and the resplendent teenaged Hemings accompanied the convent-trained Patsy to Parisian entertainments, where Hemings attracted attention, including that of Jefferson. Although it is not clear when Patsy learned about her father’s relationship with Hemings, the knowledge compromised Patsy’s youth (to say nothing of Hemings’s); probably propelled her into an early, unhappy marriage; and later forced her to defend her father against charges that she not only knew to be true but that had also pained her for decades. After her marriage, she divided her time between her father and her husband, at times running two plantations. After Jefferson’s presidency, she oversaw Monticello and that community’s interracial and interfamilial complexities, extracting labor from all, including her enslaved kin.
Patsy, her husband, and her father all believed that Jefferson’s “mild” treatment of his slaves and their “laziness” had caused his debts. The idea that the family’s financial problems were the slaves’ fault must have helped her after her father’s death, as she disposed of the men, women, and children who had worked for him at Monticello. Some of his slaves found buyers nearby; but Patsy put others, less fortunate, on the auction block, a process that even many owners dreaded for the callousness it betrayed about them. Patsy also had many slaves of her own. She did her father’s bidding and unobtrusively let Sally Hemings’s children go free, and in her will, stipulated that Hemings, who was her property, could live as a free woman—along with two other long-standing, intimate servants of the family. She left one enslaved woman, to whom she had promised freedom, to her son Lewis instead, since he was moving to the Arkansas territory. When Chesnut learned of the behavior of her husband and father-in-law toward their slaves, she became an enemy of slavery; but Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with the enslaved Hemings and her family did not have the same effect on Patsy Randolph.
Dolley Madison’s Quaker parents emancipated their slaves and moved to Pennsylvania, but her family did not prosper in free society. Dolley married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, and they had two sons. Then, Todd died of yellow fever. As a young woman, Dolley evidently chafed at the Quaker community’s emphasis on plain dressing and living, as well as at its willingness to criticize Friends who failed to do so. Her sister married out of the community, to George Steptoe Washington, President Washington’s nephew and a substantial slaveholder in western Virginia. When James Madison Jr., a slave-owning congressman from Virginia, proposed to Dolley, the pretty, lively widow, after some deliberation, agreed. The couple lived in Washington for sixteen years while Madison was first secretary of state and then president. His wife, fully liberated from Quakerism, entertained relentlessly, dressed extravagantly (many thought provocatively), and flirted. In Washington DC, where slavery was permitted, she deployed the family slaves ostentatiously, unencumbered with the embarrassment George and Martha Washington had felt when the nation’s capital was in Philadelphia, in the free state of Pennsylvania. Dolley famously claimed to have fled the capital during the War of 1812 carrying George Washington’s portrait, but it was probably enslaved people who saw to that, after Dolley left with a few pieces of silver.
After her years as First Lady, Dolley and James Madison retired to Montpelier, where Dolley watched over the slaves on whom she both depended and, like her fellow First Ladies, distrusted. The myth of paternalism held that “good owners” did not separate enslaved families or sell slaves against their wishes. The Madisons, however, barely permitted James’s trusted valet, Paul Jennings, to visit his wife and children on a nearby plantation. They separated families as their own desires dictated, giving many slaves to Dolley’s surviving son Payne, to work his new plantation. Payne’s failed enterprises and his alcoholism diminished the couple’s resources, but they were going into debt on their own as well. During the 1830s, James began selling off his slaves to pay his creditors. In a twist on Jefferson’s reasoning, he believed the slaves’ high rate of reproduction created his debts, because he had to support so many who were unprofitable to him.
Many close to James believed he would emancipate his slaves at his death. But in his will he freed no one, instead giving Dolley not the “widow’s third” to which she would traditionally have been entitled but all of his slaves, to do with as she wished. Some of James’s associates believed there was a secret will freeing his slaves, but if it had ever existed, it was never found. Dolley began selling slaves without regard to their wishes, and when she decided to move back to Washington, after more than 25 years at Montpelier, she put Payne in charge of selling the plantation. He sold some slaves along with Montpelier and some individually, and took others with him to his plantation.
Dolley’s spendthrift ways in Washington meant that she continued to sell things and people. In moneyless spells she survived partly because her husband’s valet, Paul Jennings, who was well connected, brought food to her and the enslaved people working in her home. She never freed him, instead forcing him to buy his freedom. (It is a relief to learn that Jennings had secret life as an effective abolitionist activist.) In her will, Dolley, like her husband, freed no one. She left most of the people and things she still owned to her son. When he died, he emancipated the few slaves he had inherited with bequests of $200 to each.
Schwartz asks us to integrate slavery fully into our understanding of everyday life in the early national and antebellum United States. The majority of First Ladies before the Civil War owned slaves. This had terrible consequences for the people they owned, ugly effects on the owners, and established sordid models of acceptable behavior for the nation.
Martha Saxton is professor emerita of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College and most recently, a fellow at the C.V. Starr Center at Washington College. She is completing a biography of Mary Ball Washington, the founder’s mother.