What the Louisiana 16 research is not

It is not a compilation of facts and figures for the sake of collecting and archiving data. Frankly, if that were the goal, we would be hard-pressed to push on. There is a depressing paucity of evidence of the particulars of the 1834 sale of a purported 16 men and women, all people of color enslaved by James Madison. There are no existing sales transactions, letters of agreement, instructions or reports that offer dates, prices or other expected matters of arrangement. And that just covers the seller’s and buyer’s business.

What about those sold? Nothing. Nada. Zip! No names, ages, genders, family members, notes or objects sent along or left behind. In such cases, we have come to expect little more. I should clarify that we do have one name, mentioned in a letter from Taylor to Madison in January of 1835. Apparently, one of those sold was a woman named Betty who supposedly became ill a month or two after her arrival in Louisiana.

Despite the non-existence of the evidentiary material listed above, the reality of the sale is not in question.

A few of the pieces of supporting testimony could be stricken as hearsay or the witness discredited for some other reason. It is in a letter from Edward Coles to a relative—and only here—that the number 16 is stated. As a counter-statement, Harriet Martineau, a British writer having visited Madison in February of 1835 wrote that “… he’d sold many of them in recent years,” including a dozen the week before Martineau’s arrival.

Was Martineau writing about the 16 and did she misremember information that Madison shared? Perhaps she did not hear him correctly as it has been reported that she, too, was hard of hearing. Or could it be that there was a subsequent sale of another dozen in early February?

That is where the gathering ends and the analysis begins, if the goal is to be something more than collecting data.

Earlier, I stated that the sale, at least the one sale to William Taylor, is not in question. There is ample correspondence between primary and very credible participants—James Madison, William Taylor, Dolley Madison, to name a few—that substantiates the occurrence of the sale of an undetermined number of Madison’s enslaved to William Taylor who relocated them to Point Coupee Parish, Louisiana.

If the exercise of collecting and archiving facts and figures is not the goal, then what is the purpose of pursuing this story?

Please do not misunderstand my message: facts and figures are vital to any research project and this one is no exception. However, without analysis, hypothesis and the endeavor to prove or disprove theories, the existence or lack of raw data leaves one standing forlornly outside the garden gate of humanity.

With all due respect, a multitude of scholars have produced voluminous works from the study and analysis of every scintilla of Madison’s life. The studies are valuable, justified and educational.

I suggest that even a small percentage of that same effort directed toward the lives of the enslaved is justified and would also prove valuable and educational. In the process, the lives of those ancestors as well as their descendants would be elevated to a well-deserved level of understanding and acknowledgment.

Fortunately, this philosophy is shared by the likes of the Montpelier Foundation, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and other historically iconic institutions. Their light helps to illuminate the path forward!

Read the story of Sally Heming’s living quarters.

Until next week, be well.

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