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James Madison.

[Detail] James Madison.

Madison in Retirement: Slavery

Like many of his Virginia contemporaries, Madison seemed unable to come to terms with slavery. During the Revolution, he wrote a letter to Joseph Jones, stating his opposition to a Virginia proposal that would offer white enlistees slaves as a recruitment incentive.

When Madison went to Philadelphia to serve his first term in Congress, he took along Billey, one of his enslaved servants. While in Philadelphia, Billey sought his freedom. In a letter to his father, Madison explained that he was prohibited in Pennsylvania from selling Billey but had arranged for his indenture for seven years, writing that he "cannot think of punishing him by transportation merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood."

. . . I am persuaded his mind is too thoroughly tainted to be a fit companion for fellow slaves in Virga [Virginia]. . . . I do not expect to get near the worth of him; but cannot think of punishing him by transportation merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood, and have proclaimed so often to be the right, & worthy the pursuit, of every human being.

From "James Madison to James Madison Sr., September 8, 1783," images 69 and 70

Read the letter to Robert Evans, June 15, 1819, in which Madison states his views on the gradual emancipation of slaves. In the letter, Madison expresses the belief that prejudice would necessitate removal of emancipated slaves and suggests that the proposal to settle emancipated slaves in Africa "merits encouragement from all who regard slavery as an evil, who wish to see it diminished and abolished by peaceable & just means." In response to a letter from R. R. Gurley, Secretary of the American Colonization Society, Madison writes of his wishes for the society's success.

Madison was critical of arguments in Congress regarding the Missouri Compromise to regulate slavery. In a February 10, 1820, letter to President Monroe, Madison opposed the opinion that the framers of the Constitution had objected to the internal migration of slaves. A few months earlier, Madison, in a letter to Robert Walsh (November 27, 1819), clarified issues regarding slavery discussed at the Constitutional Convention. He wrote of the discussion regarding the slave trade and the three-fifths compromise and expressed his views on the Congressional debate over the Missouri question.

The Marquis de Lafayette opposed slavery and had often written to the founders urging emancipation. Read Madison's letter to Lafayette, February 1, 1830 regarding the discussion of slavery in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830 and the American Colonization Society.

  • To what was Madison referring as "the price of so much blood"? How did this event seem to influence his thinking about slavery? What evidence in the same letter suggests Madison had mixed feelings about slavery?
  • Why do you think Madison was particularly concerned about some arguments being made in the debate on the Missouri Compromise? How does he refute those arguments?
  • What reason does Madison give for the Virginia Convention's failure to deal with emancipation?
  • What position does Madison take with regard to the American Colonization Society? What reasons does he give to support this position?
  • What views on emancipation did Madison express in the letter to Thomas Dew? How did his personal actions regarding his own slaves align with those views?

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