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When Daniel Webster Freed the Slaves

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Daniel Webster was one of those politicians who embraced the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which allowed for the return of escaped slaves from free states back to the South. But in his personal life, Daniel Webster freed the slaves.

Webster, born in Salisbury, N.H., represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate. He became a symbol of  the fence-sitting about slavery that infuriated abolitionists. Webster‘s compromise efforts to preserve the Union, the most prescient of them said, were futile as well as immoral.

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster Freed the Slaves

In his personal life, Webster was more decisive on the issue of slavery. He employed a young woman in his Washington residence, Monica McCarty, as his cook. McCarty was a slave who was owned by Judge William Cranch, of Weymouth, Mass.  Cranch, a cousin of Abigail Adams, served as chief judge of the federal court in Washington, D.C.

Webster told Cranch that McCarty was an excellent cook. Her duck, soft-shelled crabs, and other seafood dishes were celebrated throughout Washington society.

William Cranch

When Cranch offered to sell McCarty to Webster, he recoiled at the idea of ever owning another person. He did, however, agree to purchase her freedom for a total of $600.

Webster and McCarty agreed she would repay Webster the cost from her earnings. However, the soft-hearted Webster most likely never collected. When he died, McCarty had $2,000 in an account established for her, but Webster never asked her to repay him.

McCarty was just one of several slaves that Webster personally liberated. He paid to free Henry Pleasants, who Webster employed as a servant. Pleasants and Webster’s son Edward went on to become fast friends for life. And in another case, Webster helped Ann Bean, his housekeeper, free her husband. Bean was free, but her husband was not.

Paul Jennings

When Bean was close to having set aside the $1,500 needed, Webster agreed to supplement whatever she had saved in order to win his freedom.

Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings

And in another case, he discreetly loaned Paul Jennings $120 so he could buy his freedom from former first lady Dolley Madison. Webster had known Jennings from his days when he was the personal servant of President Madison in the White House.

Jennings would go on to assist in the escape of 77 slaves to the north aboard the ship Pearl, according to the book, A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons. And he would write his own memoir, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.

Webster famously struggled with money throughout his life. Little wonder with him throwing it around the way he did.

This story was updated in 2022.

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