In the history of the United States of America, the institution of slavery was legalised. History has it that, the enslaved labourers helped build the former Executive Mansion, now the White House. In the period 1789-1877, most American Presidents were infamous for enslaving humans. Only two of them; John Adams and John Quincy Adams who were father and son loathed slavery and distanced themselves from its perpetuation. Slavery is regarded one of the most regrettable societal evils in human history. The detrimental effects of slavery were perpetuation of gross abuse of human rights and abrogation of human dignity. Typical slaves inside the White House were subjected to cruelty, torture and inhumane treatment. It might be shocking to notice that, on average, a United States head of State owned 60 slaves who worked at the Washington capital while some only enslaved humans before ascending to power. Let us look into the top ten U.S leaders who were record enslavers in office and before ascension.
1. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
Surprised that the charming U.S President Jefferson owned slaves? Yes, the third president of the U.S was in actual fact, the most notorious slave owner amongst his peers. Having once alluded that “All men are created equal”, Jefferson’s active participation in the slavery institution comes as a surprise. On the slavery issues, President Jefferson proved to be a man of many contradictions. Perhaps he was conflated and had to pursue a populist narrative. Before his ascendancy to the highest office, he argued against slavery and sought to ensure that it does not extend further to new territories. During his tenure, having received an avalanche of criticism and backlash from the major stakeholders of the slavery institution, he retracted and enslaved most human in the Washington DC. Statista reports that he owned about 600 slaves as president and he might have fathered children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings following a forced sexual act.
2. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States takes the second position on our list. He is said to have owned around 200 slaves during his presidency, 95 of which he had carried with him from his Tennessee plantation into the White House. His style of slave ownership makes him fit for the top 5 on our tally. Jackson is said to have been the cruelest of the presidential slave owners during the subsistence of the slavery system. The White Historical Association affirms that President Jackson made extensive use of the lashing punishment for what he termed ‘errant slaves’. When one of his slaves escaped, he had to stake his $50 for anyone who knew about his whereabouts. This reward was said to be backed with an additional bonus for the finder who lashes him for a record hundred lashes.
3. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
Owing to his rich background as a landowner, Taylor was the last president of America who was an enslaver to 150 people during his time in office. Taylor seemed keen to advance this institution but, the circumstances surrounding his tenure could not create ample ground to sustain slavery. He led the United States of America for a very brief period spurning just a year and four months. When he breathed his last , he had dismally failed to decide on the heated question of slavery which threatened a split within the Congress. Perhaps, his record lack of interest in political matters might have been the reason for his failure to liberate humanity from bondage.
4. George Washington (1789-1797)
The founding president of the United States assumes the fourth position in the enslavement list having enslaved a staggering 123 slaves at the White House. At the time of his death, President Washington oversaw a slave ownership system akin to that which applied in the State of Virginia. In the State of Virginia, slavery was the backbone of the economy since it provided cheap yet effective labour. By the time of his death, his slaves had doubled to around 300. However, unlike Jackson, Washington did not fancy the continued perpetuation of slavery and yearned for the emancipation of his slaves. The Washington Post captures that, his will was instructive that his slaves be granted emancipation.
5. James Madison (1809-1817)
President Madison, the fourth president of America was born and bred in a family background where slavery was promoted. Growing up in Virginia where the economy was hinged on enslavement of the colored people, he went on to own slaves as the U.S commander in chief. He owned an estimated 100 slaves who carried out much of the donkey work in the Executive Mansion including securing its valuables from pillage and theft.
6. James Monroe (1817-1825)
History has it that, the tenth president of the U.S was a slave owner of about 90 slaves having inherited 30 of them from his family estate. He however, had a somewhat indifferent stance towards the slave system and proposed the American Colonisation Society as a means to an end for the slavery cancer within the United States of America. He figured various ways to at least reduce the dire effects of slavery and its spreading.
7. John Tyler (1841-1845)
As a resident of a society in which slavery was the order of the day, John Tyler also owned slaves totaling 70 people. The enslaved people would go on to toil in the president’s estate in Virginia. His father, Judge Tyler was also a prominent slave owner, enslaving a considerable number of slaves to advance his financial interest in a plantation at the Greenway fields of Virginia. Tyler inherited 13 slaves from his father and went on to acquire more as he started his own farming project.
8. James K. Polk (1845-1849)
President Polk, a Democrat, was an enslaver who made use of slavery to advance his interests at his Tennessee estate. He became President at a time when the slave question hit its most divisive stage. During his tenure in office, Polk was a master to 35 slaves. On his death, he instructed that his slaves be freed only after his wife dies. Fortunately, this could not materialise since, soon after his death, great strides had been made to delegitimise the slavery institution. The enslaved victims were later freed much earlier than what President Polk had instructed.
9. William Henry Harrison (1841)
He holds the record for the shortest serving president in the United States of America’s political history. William Henry Harrison, born in Virginia had a family generational history of enslavement. Growing up, he led a very comfortable lifestyle which thrived on free labour for its development. Harrison once advocated for the legalisation of slavery in the State of Indiana using his muscle as the military governor. His pro-enslavement efforts were however thwarted by the Jefferson government.
10. Martin van Buren (1837-1841)
Just like President Ulysses Grant, Van Buren the founding father of the Democratic Party owned at least one slave before he became president. The White House Historical Association documents Van Buren to have hired out enslaved and free African Americans to work for various firms in the state capital of Albany. Having held just an individual under slavery, he wraps up our list of former U.S leaders who enslaved humans.