Louisiana 16: More Questions about Madison’s sold slaves

Last week’s column discussed the fact that in 1834 James Madison made the decision to sell a few of his enslaved people to his cousin William Taylor. He reconciled the act to a friend by stating that they consented to go, and he imagined that Taylor would do better by them than he could, presumably because Taylor was wealthy with ample disposable and discretionary funds.

But why was there no record? Stay tuned for what might be the answer.

Always the optimist, I have not completely surrendered to the reality that to date there is no record of this sale. I continue to seek out new evidence, crossing every “t” and dotting each “i” in hopes of discovering new evidence.

However, currently, there is no record. It begs the question as to why. Transactions regarding the sale of property were typically recorded in the courthouse for the county of transfer. The strongest theory is that the transaction was kept in private counsel between Madison and Taylor.

Was Madison embarrassed or even ashamed by his act of selling people? His records indicate a strong opposition to the practice of slave trading and yet, here he is in 1834 selling a number of those who likely were born to families living at Montpelier and owned by the Madisons.

Madison was deeply in debt and some of that debt was owed to friends and family that he held in very high regard. Had he recorded the sale at the courthouse, would that have triggered immediate attachment of the funds, thus disabling him from repaying the debts he felt were paramount?

In the absence of any correspondence that specifically addresses this point, we are left with speculation, but are still required to substantiate as circumstantial evidence allows. Despite the lack of legal record, the lack of any personal notation in record, letter or other means is perplexing. Again, I offer a theory or two.

In 1834, James Madison was 83 years old and not enjoying the best of health. To say he was under a great deal of financial stress would be an understatement. He would die in less than two years and at his death, it has been recorded that he owned an estimated 100 slaves.

Did he know them all? It is unlikely that Madison was familiar with any of the bondmen/women other than those who served the house and resided nearby in the South Yard at Montpelier. In his earlier years, he may have ridden across the plantation, reviewing the more remote quarters, but it would have been doubtful in his 1834 condition.

William Taylor was purchasing individuals to labor in the sugar and cotton fields of Louisiana. He was not buying domestic servants.

Was Madison a participant in the selection process determining who were the most likely candidates for sale to William Taylor? Again, due to his age and health, the answer would be, “Probably not.” The more likely scenario is that he would have delegated those decisions to his overseer. Thus, the decision would be reached by agreement between the overseer and Taylor. Correspondence from Madison to Taylor supports this theory.

There is little doubt that there was a report from the overseer to Madison, but perhaps only verbal. Did it contain numbers, ages, genders, names and familial connections? Without the existence of such a report, we cannot know.

Regardless, of the reasoning, I find it challenging to understand why there was not an effort to log for future reference those men and women who were sent to Louisiana and as someone recently commented to me, “They might as well have been moved to the moon.”

Be encouraged. The absence of any record creates obstacles but not a dead end!

Until next week, be well

Correction: the print version of this column incorrectly states Madison’s age in 1834 as 81 instead of 83.

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