Slavery represents one of the darkest eras in American history. Like all deep historical blemishes, however, it's important to be as educated as possible about slavery in the United States, both to commemorate the suffering of victims and to learn about the roots of prejudice and oppression. While it's hard to believe, there were many US presidents who owned slaves and even actively participated in the slave trade. In fact, George Washington himself was a slave owner, among many other much-praised figures in American history.
How many presidents owned slaves? During the course of history, 12 US presidents were slave owners. Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves at his plantation, and even fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. While some presidents openly advocated for the end of the practice, or at least to slow its expansion throughout the country, they nevertheless openly participated by being slave owners themselves. While many presidents, like Ulysses S. Grant, came around and eventually and liberated their slaves, it does not change the fact they participated in a terrible act of oppression.
While we cannot change the past, we can learn from it going forward. To inform yourself on the history of slavery, you'll find a list of presidents who owned slaves below.
Ulysses S. Grant owned anywhere from one to five slaves, although some likely belonged to his wife Julia. Julia had at least four slaves - Eliza, Julia, John, and Dan - but whether or not ownership transferred to her husband remains unclear. Grant did purchase one slave, William Jones, shortly before the Civil War, but emancipated him in 1859. Later in life, Grant came to condemn the institution and even called it "a stain to the Union."
- Presidency: 18
Andrew Johnson owned about eight slaves, but none while he was president. Johnson was a wealthy landowner in Tennessee, where he acquired slaves. During his time in Congress, he strongly advocated in favor of owning slaves and believed this to be a constitutional right. He even pushed for Tennessee's exemption from the Emancipation Proclamation. Johnson began emancipating his own slaves, however, in 1863.
While he never made his personal reasons for freeing his slaves clear, he adopted a more abolitionist platform shortly thereafter. He still argued only white men should have roles in the government, but condemned the practice for slowing societal progress.
- Presidency: 17
Zachary Taylor owned no more than 150 slaves and was the last president to keep slaves during his presidency. Taylor had numerous plantations in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana. However, politically, Taylor had some abolitionist views. He opposed creating more slave states during his presidency. He even tried to push the United States away from the institution by pressing for statehood of California and New Mexico as this would give the North a majority in the Senate.
- Presidency: 12
James K. Polk owned about 25 slaves. As a landowner in Tennessee, Polk had numerous slaves at his disposal. He sold his Tennessee land in 1834 and moved to Mississippi, where he began purchasing more slaves to work his land. Polk brought some of his slaves to Washington, D.C. As president, however, he advocated limiting the spread of the practice. He favored the expansion of the Missouri Compromise line further west, which would widely expand the areas of the United States that prohibited it.
- Presidency: 11