What We Know About John Freeman

John Freeman was enslaved by James Madison at the White House from March 11, 1809 until July 22, 1815. Madison had purchased Freeman from Thomas Jefferson during the transition between their presidencies. The circumstances surrounding this transaction were somewhat unusual, and reflect John Freeman’s determination to set the direction of his own life’s path.

 

Sold to Jefferson

John Freeman’s first enslaver was Dr. William Baker from Prince George’s County, Maryland. In 1801, when Freeman was about 20 years old, newly-elected President Jefferson hired him from Baker for $8 a month to serve as a waiter in the White House. Freeman also looked after the dining room and hall.[1] Jefferson ordered suits of livery for “John” and other White House servants, including the coachman, groom, and footman. Freeman’s suit included a coat with “plated Buttons,” lace, and crimson facings, as well as a “Spanish Waistcoat” and pantaloons.[2]

Although Freeman worked primarily in White House, he also traveled with Jefferson whenever he returned to Monticello. While on a visit to Monticello in 1803, John Freeman met Melinda (or Malinda) Colbert, a niece of Sally Hemings, who was enslaved by Jefferson’s daughter Maria (Mary) Jefferson Eppes. John and Melinda decided to marry. They obtained permission from Melinda’s parents and intended to ask the permission of Melinda’s enslaver. Before they could ask, Maria Eppes died on April 17, 1804. [3]

On April 18, Freeman wrote a note to Jefferson, saying that he had been “foolish” enough to become engaged to Melinda (a self-effacing way of presenting the situation), and that he feared the death of Maria Eppes would make the couple miserable. Clearly worried that Melinda might be sold, Freeman asked Jefferson to purchase him and his intended wife. [4]

John Freeman asked Jefferson to purchase Melinda Colbert as well as himself in this letter. (Read a transcription here.) Courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.

Jefferson noted in a letter to Maria’s widower John Wayles Eppes that he was unwilling to buy Melinda Colbert, feeling that he did not need another domestic worker, and noted that John would see Melinda only when Jefferson visited Monticello, and only if Melinda happened to be there at the same time.[5] (The Eppes family had their own plantation, Eppington, in Chesterfield County.) Jefferson did, however, agree to purchase John Freeman from Dr. Baker for $400. The bill of sale had the unusual stipulation that Freeman would be emancipated in 1815.[6] We don’t know why Baker sold Freeman under an 11-year contract; perhaps Baker himself had intended to manumit John Freeman in that time frame. By persuading Jefferson to purchase him, Freeman had managed to secure his future freedom on paper, while maintaining a connection to the extended family that enslaved Melinda Colbert.

Although the sequence of events is unclear, Melinda gained her freedom at some point between 1804 and 1809. She may have been manumitted by John Wayles Eppes, or he may have sold her to someone else who manumitted her. An 1806 Virginia law required that a manumitted slave leave the state or risk re-enslavement. [7] Since Melinda wanted to be with her husband John in Washington, she was willing to leave Virginia, although she would certainly miss the family members she would likely never see again.

Jefferson planned to take John Freeman back to Monticello with him when his term as president ended in March 1809. This posed a dilemma for John. After explaining to Jefferson that the law prevented Melinda from returning to Virginia, John shrewdly followed up with a letter. He apologized for displeasing Jefferson, and with an air of resignation, promised that “rather then dis ples [displease] you i will go and Do the best i Can.” He closed the letter by reinforcing the point that he had made to Jefferson earlier: “Mr Eppes says that there is such a Law as i told you[,] I shall be oblige to Leave hir and the Children.”[8] This last line seems to be a subtle dig, emphasizing that Freeman would have to leave his wife and family behind if Jefferson insisted on taking him to Monticello. Clearly Freeman wanted Jefferson to reconsider.

 

Sold to Madison

John Freeman’s campaign of subtle determination paid off when Jefferson decided to sell him to incoming President James Madison. Once again, the sale contract contained the provision that Freeman would be manumitted in 1815. In April 1809 Jefferson sent a deed of indenture to Madison:

“I hereby assign & convey to James Madison President [of the Uni]ted States the within named servant, John, otherwise called John Freeman during the remaining term of his service from the 11th day of March last past when he was delivered to the said James for the consideration of two hundred and thirty one Dollars 81. cents. Witness m[y hand] this 19th day of April 1809. at Monticello in Virginia.

Th: Jefferson” [9]

Jefferson’s letter also listed several items for which Madison owed him, closing with:

“John Freeman. 76½ months out of 132 months @ 400D.                231.81

… the deed for John is inclosed.” [10]

Having paid $400 to enslave John Freeman through 1815, Jefferson calculated the cost of the remaining 76 ½ months of the contract and charged Madison $231.81.

Freeman and the War of 1812

John Freeman next appears in the documentary record during the War of 1812. As British troops marched toward Washington on August 24, 1814, John Freeman was caught up in the frenzied evacuation of the White House. As Paul Jennings later remembered,

“While waiting, at just about 3… James Smith, a free colored man who had accompanied Mr. Madison to Bladensburg, gallopped up to the house, waving his hat, and cried out, ‘Clear out, clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!’ All then was confusion. … People were running in every direction. John Freeman (the colored butler) drove off in the coachee with his wife, child, and servant; also a feather bed lashed on behind the coachee, which was all the furniture saved, except part of the silver and the portrait of Washington…”[11]

Although Jennings did not call Melinda Colbert Freeman by name, it is significant that Jennings remembered John Freeman evacuating with his wife. The Freemans had gone through too much already, to allow themselves to be separated at this critical moment.

John Freeman caught up with James Madison within the next few days, as James tried to determine whether the British would attempt another attack and when it would be safe for Dolley to return from northern Virginia to Washington. James planned to use John Freeman as a messenger, writing to Dolley that he would “keep Freeman till the question is decided, and then lose no time in sending him to you. … My next will be by Freeman & as soon as I can decide the point of your coming on.”[12]

James and Dolley Madison typically referred to enslaved people by their first names and usually did not acknowledge their surnames. However, they both wrote of John Freeman as “Freeman,” as though it was his first name. Possibly this was their way of distinguishing him from White House majordomo John Sioussat, often called “French John.”

When news of the peace treaty arrived in Washington in February 1815, Paul Jennings remembered John Freeman taking part in the celebrations at the Madisons’ temporary quarters, the Octagon House:

“When the news of peace arrived, we were crazy with joy. Miss Sally Coles, a cousin of Mrs. Madison, and afterwards wife of Andrew Stevenson, since minister to England, came to the head of the stairs, crying out, ‘Peace! peace!’ and told John Freeman (the butler) to serve out wine liberally to the servants and others. I played the President’s March on the violin, John Susé and some others were drunk for two days, and such another joyful time was never seen in Washington.”[13]

 

A Free Man

After July 22, 1815, John Freeman continued to work for the Madisons, but now as a free servant. Several letters mention Freeman acting as a messenger or courier. In June 1816, when the Madisons had just arrived at Montpelier for the summer, Dolley wrote to her sister Anna Cutts that Freeman would carry letters to Anna when he returned from Montpelier to Washington:

“I shall write pr Freeman hereafter, who I told to call on you for information when & how he should come…”[14]

Later in that month, Washington neighbor Richard Forrest acknowledged James Madison’s request to give $15 to John Freeman, who was apparently making travel arrangements to return to Montpelier:

“The fifteen dollars for John Freeman, I will hand him to day with the proper directions to ensure a co-operation between the Steam Boat and the Stage to Montpelier.”[15]

Dolley Madison closed a letter to Anna Cutts in July 1816 with a line suggesting that John Freeman had carried items from Anna to Montpelier on this trip:

“Freeman for safe, in time, & with all the things you ware so good as to send me—”[16]

John Freeman sometimes worked as an independent contractor paid out of government funds. On December 1, 1816, he whitewashed the front areas of the Seven Buildings, a rented townhouse which served as the temporary presidential residence for the last two years of the Madison administration. He was paid $4 through the President’s Furnishings Fund. [17]

John’s wife Melinda Colbert Freeman also was paid out of the President’s Furnishings Fund for work she did as a seamstress. In 1809 Melinda was paid $31.50 for a variety of “needle work” she performed for the White House, including making pillow cases, sheets, chair covers, and tablecloths; cleaning; and assisting another seamstress, Mrs. Sweeney, in altering curtains and carpets.[18] In 1812 Melinda was paid $1.87 ½ for “making Kitchen linen” for the White House,[19] and in 1813 she was paid $12 for making carpets and curtains for the White House.[20] Finally, for the Madisons’ residence in the Seven Buildings, Melinda (and another woman identified only as Polly) made carpets for the payment of $11.50.[21] 

John Freeman’s name appears on two documents from the Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts in regard to work that he did at the Seven Buildings. First, a receipt shows a $4 payment made to Freeman by George Boyd, the agent for the President’s Furnishings Fund, for “white washing front Areas” on December 1, 1816. Freeman made “his mark” – an X – to  indicate that he received payment on January 21, 1817. Next, the $4 payment to John Freeman appears on the fourth line of list of tradesmen paid out of the President’s Furnishings Fund. Courtesy of the United States National Archives and Records Administration.

Life After the President’s House

There was no reason for John Freeman to remain in the Madisons’ household once Madison’s term as president ended in 1817; his life was in Washington with Melinda and their children. On March 24, 1818, John and Melinda recorded their marriage in the District of Columbia.[22]

In 1827 John Freeman went to the clerk of the Washington Circuit Court to obtain a certified copy of the contract by which he had been sold to Thomas Jefferson,  and which established that he was free as of July 22, 1815. Accompanying Freeman – to vouch for his identity – was John H. Baker, likely a relative of Dr. William Baker, who had sold Freeman to Jefferson in 1804. The clerk wrote on the certified copy:

“I further certify, that the Bearer here of John a black man about forty six years of age five feet seven inches high, straight and well made, with two small scars on his forehead, no other perceivable marks or scars, very pleasing countenance, has been proved to me by John H. Baker to be the same man mentioned in the within extract and Certificate—”[23]

With the clerk’s detailed physical description of Freeman (now age 46 in 1827), the certified document would serve as proof of Freeman’s manumission.

Washington city directories give some further details about John Freeman’s life there. In 1827 he was listed as a “waiter at Gadby’s hotel,” with a dwelling on K Street North near 19th Street West. In 1830 he was again a waiter, now at the home of Treasury Secretary Samuel D. Ingham. [24]

Freeman was also employed as a messenger for the State Department in January 1829, when Nicholas Trist, then a clerk at that department, wrote to his wife Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist:

“John Freeman is now acting as a messenger in this office – His wife has encreased her family –  the eighth — and is doing well — so is Mary.”[25]

Virginia Trist, a granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, would have remembered John and Melinda Freeman, as well as Melinda’s sister Mary Colbert.

Updates on John Freeman, his wife, and his sister-in-law appear near the end of this letter written by Thomas Jefferson’s grandson-in-law in 1829. The Freemans’ new baby was their daughter Ellen (as revealed by her age in the 1850 census). Melinda was about 42 years old; her eighth child was likely her last. Nicholas Philip Trist to Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist, January 27, 1829, Folder 45, in the Nicholas Philip Trist Papers #2104, Southern Historical Collection, The Lois Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Freedom for Others

Mary Colbert’s presence in the Freeman household was no coincidence. In the years following Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826, the 200 people he had enslaved at Monticello and Poplar Forest were sold, beginning with an auction at Monticello in 1827.

John Freeman was able to purchase Melinda’s sister Mary Colbert for $50 in 1827, manumit her, and bring her to Washington. Fifty dollars was a low price for an enslaved woman, suggesting that Mary was only strong enough or healthy enough to do light work.[26]

Mary Colbert was not the only enslaved person whom John Freeman helped to achieve freedom. In the 1830s Freeman, along with other members of Washington’s free Black community, worked to raise money to purchase the freedom of enslaved people who were endangered by threat of sale and removal. John Freeman, along with his sons, acted as managers for fundraising suppers and other events for this purpose.[27]

 

John and Melinda’s Last Years

John Freeman died in 1839, aged about 58. In his will, written August 10, 1839, he described himself as “being very sick and weak in body, but of perfect mind and memory, thanks be given unto God.” Regarding “such worldly estate wherewith it has pleased God to bless me in this life,” he left his K Street house and all his possessions to “Malinda my dearly beloved wife.” Unlike Freeman’s receipt for whitewashing the President’s House, which he signed with an “X,” his will bears the full signature “John Freeman.” Sadly, the sickness to which Freeman alluded led to his death within the next weeks or months. His will was probated on November 29, 1839.[28]

Melinda remained in the Freeman house for most of the next two decades. In her 1857 will, she left the K Street lot and the “two story Brick dwelling thereon, in which I now reside” to her daughter Ellen Freeman Thomas – the eighth child whose birth was noted in Nicholas Trist’s 1829 letter.[29] Melinda died in September 1859 at age 72, after less than a month’s illness.[30]

 

A Free Man’s Legacy

Even while he was enslaved, John Freeman’s life seemed to be on an arc heading toward freedom. We don’t know whether he was given the surname Freeman at birth, but he was using it as early as 1804, while still enslaved by Baker; he signed himself “John F” on the letter requesting that Jefferson purchase him from Baker.

Even while enslaved, Freeman was able to orchestrate events so that he could stay in Washington with his beloved “Malinda” – persuading Jefferson first to purchase him, and next to sell him to Madison.

Once he achieved his freedom, John Freeman used his new legal status not only to ensure the safety and prosperity of his wife and eight children, but to purchase the freedom of his sister-in-law, and to raise money to secure the freedom of members of his community.

John Freeman’s legacy lived on, in the freedom of others.

Descendants of John and Melinda Freeman

The names of several of the Freemans’ sons and daughters appear in their wills and census records, including son John Freeman Jr., listed as the executor of his father’s will; son Benjamin C. Freeman, listed as the executor of his mother’s will; and daughter Ellen Freeman Thomas, listed as the heir to her mother’s estate. The 1850 census shows 63-year-old Melinda Freeman living with Ellen Freeman (age 21), Martha Shorter (34), John Shorter (35), and the Shorter children Mary (10), John (8), Charles (6), Ann (4), and Martha (less than 1 year old). (The census taker misspelled “Shorter” as “Shorts.”) Martha Freeman Shorter was a daughter of John and Melinda Freeman.

Martha’s son John Freeman Shorter was born about three years after John Freeman’s death, and was named for the grandfather he never knew. True to his namesake, John Freeman Shorter carried on the legacy of freedom. He fought for the Union during the Civil War as a commissioned officer in the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Charles Henry Shorter, younger brother of John Freeman Shorter, also fought for the Union in the 22nd U.S. Colored Infantry. [31]

References

[1] Lucia Stanton, “‘A Well-Ordered Household’: Domestic Servants in Jefferson’s White House,” White House History  (2006): 4-24, accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 25099, Montpelier Research Database.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, Statement of Account Thomas Carpenter, July 1, 1801, Edgehill-Randolph Papers, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 41942, Montpelier Research Database.

[3] Lucia Stanton, “‘A Well-Ordered Household’: Domestic Servants in Jefferson’s White House,” White House History  (2006): 4-24, accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 25099, Montpelier Research Database.

[4] John Freeman to Thomas Jefferson, [April 18, 1804], Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed March 8, 2021, MRD-S 48240, Montpelier Research Database.

[5] Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, August 7, 1804, St. Mary’s Dominican College, New Orleans, Louisiana, accessed March 12, 2021, MRD-S 48246, Montpelier Research Database.

[6] Certificate of Sale and Manumission of John Freeman, July 23, 1804, Carter G. Woodson Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC., accessed March 9, 2021, MRD-S 48243, Montpelier Research Database.

[7] Jane Purcell Guide, Black Laws of Virginia: A Summary of the Legislative Acts of Virginia Concerning Negroes from Earliest Times to the Present (Lovettsville, VA: Willow Bend Books, 1996).

[8] John Freeman to Thomas Jefferson, ca. March 2, 1809, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed March 8, 2021, MRD-S 48241, Montpelier Research Database.

[9] Deed of John Freeman’s Indenture to James Madison, April 19, 1809, Carter G. Woodson Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 41940, Montpelier Research Database.

[10] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, April 19, 1809, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 13455, Montpelier Research Database.

[11] Paul Jennings and John Brooks Russell (editor), A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison (New York: George C. Beadle, 1865), accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 23434, Montpelier Research Database.

[12] James Madison to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, August 28, 1814, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 15491, Montpelier Research Database.

[13] Paul Jennings and John Brooks Russell (editor), A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison (New York: George C. Beadle, 1865), accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 23434, Montpelier Research Database.

[14] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Anna Payne Cutts, ca. June 3, 1816, Unlocated, accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 26449, Montpelier Research Database.

[15] Richard Forrest to James Madison, June 25, 1816, New York Public Library, New York, New York, accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 35178, Montpelier Research Database.

[16] Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Anna Payne Cutts, July 5, 1816, George B. Cutts Microfilm, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 40710, Montpelier Research Database.

[17] John Freeman, December 1, 1816 (packet [A]: 4), box 237, RG 217, Entry A1-347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 32561, Montpelier Research Database. See also: Statement of Accounts, October 23, 1814 – December 7, 1816, box 237, RG 217, Entry A1-347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 32594, Montpelier Research Database.

[18] Melinda Freeman, May 12, 1809 – July 14, 1809, (unbound packet 2:1), box 114, RG 217; Entry A-1 347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed March 9, 2021, MRD-S 27485, Montpelier Research Database.

[19] Melinda Freeman, January 28, 1812 (packet [A]: 10), January 28, 1812, RG 217, Entry A1-347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed March 11, 2021, MRD-S 32772, Montpelier Research Database.

[20] Melinda Freeman, November 1, 1813 (packet [3]: 47), RG 217, Entry A1-347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed March 11, 2021, MRD-S 32837, Montpelier Research Database.

[21] Malinda Freeman & Polly, October 10, 1815 (packet 2:9), box 114, RG 217; Entry A-1 347, Miscellaneous Treasury Accounts, United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, accessed March 9, 2021, MRD-S 25300, Montpelier Research Database.

[22] Ancestry.com. Washington, D.C., U.S., Compiled Marriages, 1801-1825 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 1997, accessed March 17, 2021.

[23] Certificate of Sale and Manumission of John Freeman, July 23, 1804, Carter G. Woodson Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC., accessed March 9, 2021, MRD-S 48243, Montpelier Research Database.

[24] The Washington directory, showing the name, occupation, and residence of each head of a family & person in business (Washington: S. A. Elliot, 1827), accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 38725, Montpelier Research Database’ The Washington directory, showing the name, occupation, and residence of each head of a family & person in business (Washington: S. A. Elliot, 1830), accessed February 26, 2021, MRD-S 38724, Montpelier Research Database.

[25] Nicholas Philip Trist to Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist, January 27, 1829, folder 45, in the Nicholas Philip Trist Papers #2104, Southern Historical Collection, The Lois Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, accessed March 17, 2021, MRD-S 48247, Montpelier Research Database.

[26] Lucia Stanton, Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2012), p. 339; see also Founders Online footnote to John Freeman to Thomas Jefferson, [April 18, 1804], Library of Congress, Washington, DC, accessed March 17, 2021, MRD-S 48240, Montpelier Research Database.

[27] Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012), p. 166.

[28] Will of John Freeman, August 10, 1830, Ancestry.com. Washington, D.C., U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1737-1952 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015, accessed March 17, 2021.

[29] Will of Melinda Freeman, May 15, 1857, Ancestry.com. Washington, D.C., U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1737-1952 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015, accessed March 17, 2021.

[30] Melinda Freeman’s cause of death was listed as inflammation of the bowels. Ancestry.com. U.S., Federal Census Mortality Schedules, 1850-1885 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010, accessed March 17, 2021.

[31] Ancestry.com, 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009, accessed March 17, 2021; Lucia Stanton, Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2012), pp. 253-54; “John Freeman Shorter,” Getting Word: African American Oral History Project, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, accessed March 23, 2021.

Written By

Hilarie M. Hicks, MA
Senior Research Historian

Hilarie came to Montpelier in 2010 and joined the Research Department in 2011, where she provides documentary research in support of the Montpelier Foundation’s many activities. A graduate of the College of William and Mary (B.A) and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies (M.A.), Hilarie has a broad background of experience in research, interpretation, and administration of historic sites. She enjoys following a good paper trail, and she thanks past members of the Montpelier research staff who blazed the trail for The Naming Project.

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