Number of slaves owned by U.S. presidents 1789-1877

Of the first eighteen presidents of the United States, twelve owned slaves throughout their lifetime, and eight of these were slave owners while occupying the office of president. Of the U.S.' first twelve presidents, the only two never to own slaves were John Adams, and his son John Quincy Adams; the first of which famously said that the American Revolution would not be complete until all slaves were freed. George Washington, leader of the revolution and the first President of the United States, owned many slaves throughout his lifetime, with 123* at the time of his death. Historians believe that Washington's treatment of his slaves was typical of slaveowners in Virginia at the time, however he did develop moral issues with the institution of slavery following the revolution. Washington never publicly expressed his growing opposition to slavery, although he did stipulate in his will that all his slaves were to be freed following the death of his wife, and he made financial provisions for their care that lasted until the 1830s.

Jefferson controversies

In recent years, the legacy of Thomas Jefferson has come under the most scrutiny in relation to this matter; the man who penned the words "all men are created equal" is estimated to have owned at least 600 slaves throughout the course of his lifetime. Before becoming president, Jefferson argued for restrictions on the slave trade, and against its expansion into new US territories; however he avoided the subject during his presidency as the topic grew in divisiveness and he believed that emancipation would not be achieved during his lifetime. It is also widely accepted that Jefferson had an affair and likely fathered children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings, who is also believed to be the half-sister of Jefferson's first wife. DNA tests conducted in the 1990s confirmed a genetic link between the descendants of the Jefferson and Hemings families, but could not confirm whether the link was Jefferson himself or a relative; most historians however, believe that Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings' children, and possibly six or eight of them (all of whom were kept as Jefferson's slaves).

Other Presidents

Of the other presidents who appear on this list, all are regarded differently for their attitudes towards slavery, and their impact on the eventual abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves. Madison and Monroe grew up in slave-owning families, and owned a number of slaves while serving in the White House; interestingly, Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia (the country was founded by the American Colonization Society as an African settlement for freed slaves), was named in Monroe's honor as he was a prominent advocate of the ACS. Andrew Jackson, who earned a large portion of his private wealth via the slave trade, introduced legislation that protected slave owners and slavery in the southern states; he owned around 200 slaves at the time of his death, and many more throughout his lifetime. John Tyler publicly decried slavery and claimed that it was evil, although he owned slaves as he said this and his political actions in his later life actually supported the institution of slavery (Tyler is notably the only U.S. president whose death was not mourned officially as he was involved in the government of the Confederacy at the time).

Perhaps the most surprising names on this list are Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S Grant, the vice president and leader of the United States Army during the latter stages of the American Civil War. Neither men owned slaves while in office, although Johnson, the man who oversaw the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, is reported to have owned eight slaves before entering the world of politics. Ulysses S. Grant, who managed his wife's family's farm in the 1850s, inherited one slave in 1854 who he then freed two years later. Grant's armies would eventually free countless slaves in the 1860s, as he led the Union to victory against the Confederacy and brought an end to slavery in the United States.

Reported number of slaves owned by U.S. presidents who served from 1789 to 1877

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Source

Release date

June 2020

Region

United States

Survey time period

1789 to 1877

Supplementary notes

*Number of slaves owned at time of death. Washington personally owned 123 slaves, although there were as many as 317 working on his property at the time of his death.

**Buchanan is believed to have bought slaves, whom he immediately freed and employed as servants.

This data was compiled from and cross referenced with a variety of sources, including; thoughtco.com, history.com, potus.com, mountvernon.org, smithsonianmag.com, and 10News, as well as articles from Encyclopædia Britannica relating to individual presidents and slavery.

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