On this date in 1732, a Virginia slave entered American presidential lore at the end of a noose.
The Madisons were “planters, and among the respectable though not the most opulent class”* resident in Virginia from the 1650s or so — and would in time bequeath the new American Republic its fourth president, James Madison.
We are concerned for today’s post with President Madison’s paternal grandfather, Ambrose Madison. Alas, concern will not necessarily translate to elucidation, for most of the Madison family’s records and correspondence were destroyed in the 19th century: the first Madison generations are shadowy historical figures. Ann Miller has pieced together the fragments in the short book “The Short Life and Strange Death of Ambrose Madison”, published by the Orange County (Va.) Historical Society, and that is the primary source for this post.**
Ambrose Madison was a local grandee of King and Queen County, with landholdings elsewhere in Virginia; it was Ambrose Martin who in the 1720s acquired (via his father-in-law, a land surveyor) the Orange County grounds that would become the great Madison estate Montpelier.
In 1732, Madison moved his family to the Montpelier property. By that time, he controlled 10,000 acres in present-day Orange and Greene Counties, and was gobbling up land elsewhere — like the new frontier of westward settlement, the Piedmont.
And of course, Madison owned human beings, too. The inventory of his estate from 1732 lists 29 black slaves by their first (sole) names: ten adult men, five women, and 14 children.
In the summer of 1732, Ambrose Madison took ill and started wasting away towards death. The fact was apparent to Madison and those around him; the last weeks of his life were taken up in settling affairs. (He made out a will on July 31.)
Shortly before Madison’s death on August 27, two of his slaves — a man named Turk and a woman named Dido — along with another slave, Pompey, property of a neighboring plantation, were arrested on suspicion of having poisoned Madison. No record survives to indicate how or why they would have done so.
If grievances can only be guessed-at, they are not difficult to guess. At the same time, for aught we know the trio might have been falsely accused: there had never been a murder in the vicinity, but Madison’s death came just months after a gang of slaves committed a series of armed robberies and shot at three white people.† As we have seen from later and better-documented slave resistance, southern whites were prone to great paranoia where the prospect of servile rebellion was concerned. And as Madison was a healthy fellow in his mid-thirties, attributing his unexpected death to poison was a natural move.‡
As Miller notes,
It is likely that Ambrose Madison’s case sent ripples of fear — even panic — through the region … the court [appeared] eager to have a quick trial (and, perhaps, to make quick examples of those found guilty and hopefully deter any other slave rebellions).
All three slaves were convicted together on September 6 of “feloniously Conspiring the Death” of Ambrose Madison. Pompey hanged the next day — after he’d been appraised (at £30) to compensate his owner for the destruction of property. Turk and Dido were only found to be “concerned in the said felony but not in such a degree as to be punished by death but … by Whipping.” They suffered 29 lashes apiece “on their bare backs at the Common Whipping post, and thereafter to be discharged”.
Madison’s principal heir was his only son, James — a nine-year-old boy at the time of the events in this post.
The family brush with slave revolt did not deter this future Col. Madison from resuming (once he came of age) the family trade in land acquisition. He had 108 slaves of his own by the time that he died in 1801.
“He talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging without limitation or hesitation all the evils with which it has ever been charged,” a slavery abolitionist who visited Madison (post-presidency) reported of the evening’s tete-a-tete. “Mr. Madison spoke strongly of the helplessness of all countries cursed with a servile population, in a conflict with a people wholly free.” Madison eventually came to support the fantastical solution of resettling U.S. slaves to an African colony; still, beset by debts, he never quite saw his way to manumitting his own slaves — not even in his will.
Whether the fate befalling his grandfather ever entered into President Madison’s considerations on the subject is left to posterity’s imagination; the documents surviving in his hand never mention anything about grandpa Ambrose.
* Per James Madison, Sr., Ambrose Madison’s son and the U.S. president’s father.
** Since the primary sources available are so scarce, there seems to be little that can be said with confidence of Ambrose Madison’s personality. Miller suspects him a skinflint, on the basis of a merchant’s exasperated correspondence: “I am sorry to find you complain of the cost of the Goods I sent you” … and the same man again two years later: “have Ship’d the Goods you ordered … I don’t expect that you’ll like the Cotton, you order the Cheapest.”
† A slave named Jack, owned by Mildred Howell, was hanged on May 2, 1732 for this affair. The fate of his seven compatriots history passes over in silence.
‡ Miller notes in an appendix several other trials of slaves for poisoning in 18th century Virginia, including some that resulted in acquittal — possibly militating against the railroading hypothesis.