From the very onset of America’s European colonization, what would ultimately become the United States was never really a closely united nation. For over a century prior to their declaration of independence and secession from British rule, the American colonies in the South had numerous deep-seated disputes with their Northern counterparts over a number of issues.
Many of these arguments were geographic in nature and in 1763, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania appointed two English astronomers, Charles Mason of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and his assistant Jeremiah Dixon, to chart an official boundary line between the four colonies. Over a decade later, other controversies between the North and South became even more heated over such vital matters as a constitution for the new country and the location of its permanent national capital.
As to the site for the nation’s capital, those in the North led by Alexander Hamilton proposed places such as New York’s first capital, the town of Kingston in the Mid-Hudson Valley, while those in the South led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison urged that a place such as Williamsburg, Virginia’s colonial capital, be selected. A compromise between the three regional spokesmen was finally reached in 1790 for a site on the Potomac River, and the Residence Act was adopted that year in the temporary capital of New York City.
The Act called upon the states of Maryland and Virginia to cede ten square miles of land on the Potomac River to the federal government to be used as a permanent national capital named in honor of America’s first president. It was not until a decade later, however, that Congress added the term District of Columbia to Washington’s name.
The Act also mandated that the city was to be in operation within ten years and at the beginning of the following year, Washington and Jefferson appointed a three-member commission to oversee the design and construction of the capital. A French architect and engineer who had served on General Washington’s staff during the Revolutionary War, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, was employed for the general design of the city. It had also been hoped that a sufficient number of artisans could be recruited in Europe to carry out the massive task.
When far fewer workers than needed could be found in Europe, the committee began seeking domestic craftsmen that included many free black bricklayers, carpenters, and stone masons. Again, the effort proved to be insufficient, and the committee was finally forced to turn to the surrounding plantation owners to provide up to two hundred of their most skilled slaves on a hired basis to fill the gap.
All those employed were to be provided with housing and two meals a day, but while the larger number of non-slave workers were paid a wage as well, the money earned by the slaves went directly to their owners. The slaveholders, however, were required to also clothe and provide medical care for their slaves while they were in federal service.
As the hiring out of slaves was a common practice at that time, the use of slaves in the building of Washington was certainly understandable, as well as being a perfectly legitimate and equitable arrangement for its day. Therefore, the charge today that the Capitol, White House and many other public structures in the city of Washington were built mainly by slave labor is also mainly false.
In 1800, with much construction yet to be competed on such structures as the Capitol Building and other federal facilities, President John Adams and First Lady Abigail became the first to occupy the six rooms of the also still unfinished White House. While ten of the sixteen presidents who had held office prior to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 that banned slavery in America were slaveholders, Adams of Massachusetts was not one of them and used no slaves as White House servants during his four-year stay there.
Those ten slave-owning presidents who succeeded Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk and Zachary Taylor all used their own household slaves as White House servants. The reasoning behind this was not only personal due to the president’s familiarity with the individuals involved, but economic as well. At that time, the presidential salary was only twenty-five thousand dollars a year. As only the White House steward, the person who managed the domestic staff, was a federal employee, any wages for all the other servants had to be paid by the president. Since many of the nation’s early chief executives were not wealthy men in a cash sense, the use of their own slaves was a perfectly reasonable action.
Two presidents who served after the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant, had also owned a few slaves each before they came into office. While Woodrow Wilson, who was a child during the years just prior to the War of Secession, was the last president to have had immediate family members who owned slaves, the current officeholder and four of the five living former presidents also had slave-owning ancestors. The only exception to that list is Donald Trump, all of whose ancestors immigrated to the United States from Germany long after the end of slavery in America.
Recent investigative reporting has further revealed that President Joseph Robinette Biden had at least two great-great-great grandfathers in Maryland, Jesse Robinett and Thomas Handle, who owned a fairly large number of slaves. It was also reported that Biden is a distant relative of Varina Davis, the second wife of the president of the Confederacy. During his lifetime, Jefferson Davis owned at least six hundred slaves, far more that any U. S. president.
The reports show that among the four men who proceeded Biden, James Earl Carter had only one definite great-great-great-grandfather in Georgia, Willy Carter, who had been a small-scale slaveholder. The same held true for Arkansas’ William Jefferson Clinton (Blythe). Clinton’s biological father, William Jefferson Blyth, Sr. of Texas, had a great-great grandfather who had owned a few slaves in Alabama and Mississippi before relocating to Texas after the War of Secession.
As for the two other living former presidents with slaveholding ancestors, Both George Walker Bush and Barack Hussein Obama each had ones who not only owned slaves, but were actually involved in the slave trade. One of Bush’s direct ancestors, Thomas Walker of Bristol, England, had been the captain aboard slave ships that made the transatlantic crossing during the Eighteenth Century. He later headed an infamous slave port in Sierra Leone on the west coast of t Africa. When some of Walker’s descendants immigrated to America in the latter part of that century, they became major slave owners in Maryland.
Obama’s slave story is unique, however, and one that involves both his white American mother, Ann Dunham, and his black African father, Barack Obama, Sr. His mother had only one great-great-great grandfather, an Irish immigrant named Fulmouth Kearney, who had purchased one household slave after he settled in Kansas. Evidence shows though that she was also directly descended from John Punch, an African who had been one of the earliest slaves in Virginia during the Seventeenth Century.
On his father’s side, there is some evidence that Obama’s grandfather in Kenya, Hussein Oyango Obama, had an ancestor from the ancient port city of Mombasa who may well have been involved in the slave trade that had long existed there. The port of Mombasa had been used first by Portuguese, and later by Islamic, slave traders as a transfer point for slaves being transported on the transatlantic route to the Americas and the Indian/Pacific Ocean slave-ship voyages to the west coast of South America.
It is sad indeed that far too many now brand the use of slaves in both the construction of our nation’s capital and the early running of the White House as yet another example of “systematic racism.” Instead, all Americans, black as well as white, should offer nothing but thanks and high praise for both the skill shown by the black slaves of that day who performed such work and those who had the foresight to employ their talents. It is, however, merely yet another false charge against the actions taken in an earlier time, particularly on the part of Southerners, that are now deemed to have been reprehensible miscarriages of social justice which are somehow out of step with current mores.