In May 1796, an enslaved woman fled the household of U.S. President George Washington for a life of freedom in New Hampshire. Ona Judge escaped after learning that the president’s wife Martha Washington planned to bequeath her to Eliza Custis Law, Martha Washington’s granddaughter. So while the president and his wife were having dinner, she escaped.
If a slave would flee from the home of President George Washington in the late 1700s, then slavery could only be worse for others during that period, according to the thoughts of abolitionists. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the cruel practice of owning slaves was common among those who served as presidents, history says. Enslaved workers even helped build the White House.
It is documented that four of the first five commanders-in-chief were enslavers while in office as most of them came from families and societies that enslaved people. Out of the presidents that followed, two owned enslaved people while in power, and two were enslavers in their early days.
But in the country’s early history, there were two presidents who did not enslave anyone — John Adams and John Quincy Adams. The two were the first father and son who served in the office.
The first president, George Washington, was an enslaver right from when he was 11. He inherited some enslaved workers after his father died. At Mount Vernon plantation, he had enslaved people working for him — about 119 in 1774. By the time he was president, he had more than 300 enslaved people with him at Mount Vernon.
Thomas Jefferson had about 600 enslaved people including chefs and gardeners who lived and worked at his estate, Monticello.
James Madison, whose Virginia family kept enslaved people, also owned enslaved workers while in office. He owned Paul Jennings, who lived and worked in the White House as a teen and would later publish a book described as the first memoir of life in the White House.
James Monroe also kept enslaved workers. He “inherited” an enslaved worker called Ralph from his father and controlled about 30 enslaved workers at his own farm.
Then there was Andrew Jackson, who had about 100 enslaved workers after becoming president in 1829. While a lawyer in the 1700s, Jackson was already an enslaver, and this inhumane practice helped him build a fortune.
Martin Van Buren grew up seeing his father with enslaved workers. He would later have one enslaved person, who later earned his freedom.
William Henry Harrison, like the others, “inherited” enslaved people from his father. He would own many inherited enslaved people before being made president in 1841.
John Tyler had about 70 enslaved people who worked on his estate in Virginia during his time in power while James K. Polk also enslaved about 25 workers.
The last president to own enslaved people while in office was Zachary Taylor, who served from 1849 to 1850. A national hero in the Mexican War, Taylor was also an enslaver and a wealthy landowner who controlled about 150 enslaved people on plantations in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Curiously, Andrew Johnson, who served as Abraham Lincoln’s vice president before succeeding him in 1865, owned enslaved people in his early days in Tennessee. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and led the passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery. Interestingly, those close to him including Johnson had been enslavers.
Ulysses S. Grant, who came after Johnson, was the last president to personally own enslaved people, according to History. Before the Civil War, he enslaved one person named William Jones but freed him in 1859.