Slavery was a problem that faced all Americans in the years prior to the American Civil War. Many Americans wanted to bring about an end to it but were unable to come up with a workable plan. One person to try and find an answer to the problem was himself a slave owner; he was James Madison. The institution of slavery deeply concerned James Madison, even at the start of his political career. During his career, Madison held many important political offices; he used these offices to try to bring to an end this "evil" in his society. Some criticized him for not using his power to fuller advantage, but Madison had a plan for achieving his objective.
It is difficult to determine where James Madison's idea that slavery was evil and should be done away with came from, however two events, only a few years before his birth may have been a factor. In June of 1737, a court of Oyer and Terminer ordered that a slave named Peter, guilty of "murthering his said master," be hanged.1 His head was cut off and placed on a pole near a creek for all to see. There is no evidence James Madison saw the head on the pole but, he must have heard about it for the creek was renamed, Negrohead Run. In 1745, a black female slave, Eve, was burned to death for poisoning her master, Mr. Peter Montague. Thomas Chew, sheriff and great-uncle of James Madison carried out Eve's sentence. Speculation exists that Madison's father was present and related the story to his son years later. These repugnant events may not have had an effect on Madison, but the efforts of his parents were a factor. The institution of slavery as Madison grew up with it combined "the personal ease of the master with a life long consideration of the servant."2 In his book, A History of the Old South, Clement Eaton describes many Southerners as having a guilt complex over slavery. Historians are uncertain whether James Madison had a guilt complex but he did grow up with a respect for the slaves on his father's farm. This respect stayed with Madison his entire life. His personal servant, Paul Jennings, related years after Madison's death that,
[Mr. Madison] often told the story, that one day riding home from court with old Tom Barbour (father of Governor [James] Barbour), they met a colored man who took off his hat. Mr. M. raised his, to the surprise of old Tom; to whom Mr. M. replied, "I nev...
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Miller, Ann L., ed. Visitors to Mr. Madison: Accounts of Early Nineteenth Century Visitors to Montpelier. Unfinished edition of the Montpelier Monograph Series, ____.
Alexander, Archibald. A History of Colonization on the Western Coast of Africa. Philadelphia: William S. Martin, 1869; reprint, New York: Negro University Press, 1969.
Berkeley, Edmund, Jr. "Prophet Without Honor: Christopher McPherson, Free Person of Color." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 77 (April 1969): 180-90.
Brant, Irving. James Madison, 6 vols. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1941-61.
Eaton, Clement. A History of the Old South: The Emergence of a Reluctant Nation, 3d ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1975.
Grinnan, A. G. "The Burning of Eve." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 3 (January, 1896): 308-10.
Ketcham, Ralph. James Madison: A Biography. New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., 1971; reprint, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990.
Koch, Adrienne. Madison's "Advice to My Country". Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.
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