People visit Lafayette Park where protest signs are seen along the fencing that surrounds a statue of President Andrew Jackson, Tuesday, June 16, 2020, near the White House in Washington, where protests have occurred over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. AP photo

Having toppled statues to Confederate war heroes, the new wave of civil rights protesters who emerged after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis are targeting symbols of U.S. presidents who owned slaves.

In Portland, Ore., last week, demonstrators toppled a statue of George Washington, then set it on fire. And on Monday, protesters in Washington attempted to bring down a statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square.

“Hey, hey, ho, ho, Andrew Jackson’s got to go,” the protesters chanted before police thwarted them.

The attempt to topple Jackson infuriated President Donald Trump, an admirer of the nation’s seventh president, who was a slave owner and decimator of Native Americans. The president has called Jackson a “swashbuckler.” His portrait hangs near his desk in the Oval Office.

The institution of slavery is central to the nation’s early history, particularly in Washington and the White House, which was built by slaves. In addition to Washington and Jackson, at least 10 other U.S. presidents owned slaves, including eight who owned slaves during their presidencies.

While some presidents were ambivalent about slavery – Washington, a slave owner for 56 years, left emancipation instructions for his slaves in his will – others, like Jackson, were proud upholders of the institution.


“He ordered harsh, even brutal, punishment for enslaved people who disobeyed orders,” according to the White House Historical Association. “When an enslaved woman named Betty was judged to be ‘guilty of some improper conduct,’ he wrote to his overseer that she ‘must be ruled with the cowhide’ and should be given 50 lashes the next time she misbehaved.”

Jackson hunted slaves who tried to run away, placing ads for them in newspapers. In offering a $50 award for the capture of his “Mulatto Man Slave,” Jackson identified the runaway as “thirty years old, six feet and an inch high, stout made and active, talks sensible, stoops in his walk, and has a remarkable large foot, broad across the root of the toes – will pass for a free man. …”

The reward came with a bonus: “ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.”

Jackson didn’t leave his slaves behind in Tennessee when he became president in 1829. Before moving to Washington, the White House Historical Association says, Jackson conducted an inventory:

“The inventory recorded the names, ages, and familial relationships of ninety-five enslaved individuals who lived and worked at The Hermitage, his Tennessee plantation. When President-elect Jackson left for the White House, he brought some of these enslaved people with him. The 1830 census listed fourteen enslaved individuals in Jackson’s household – eight women and six men – and many scholars suggest that his household grew during the course of his presidency.”

The source of that growth: more purchases of slaves, the White House Historical Association says:


“Historian William Seale argued that Jackson increased the number of enslaved people and decreased the number of free, hired servants in his household over the course of his presidency to save money, so he may have viewed the purchase of additional enslaved laborers as a cost-cutting measure. It was a greater investment upfront than hired labor, but it yielded a lifetime of labor for the president.”

In early 1832, another slave appeared in the White House.

Her name was Emeline.

She was 8 years old.

“She was purchased as a gift for Mary Emily Donelson, Jackson’s grandniece, by his nephew, Major Andrew Jackson Donelson,” the White House Historical Association says. “Donelson made the purchase on the president’s behalf.”

The president reimbursed him.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: