The presidential slaves

By the Numbers

March 23, 2003|By Hartford Courant

Quick, how many U.S. presidents owned slaves?

Two? Washington and Jefferson? Hmm. Madison and Monroe?

A new Web site created by a Wesleyan University psychology professor and a team of researchers and designers is an eye-opener. The answer is not two. Two is not even close. Four is not close either.

Go to www.understanding, and take the quiz. If you are like most of the people who have taken it so far, you will flunk.

You also will be asked to guess how many slaves were owned by each of the presidents who owned slaves. Again, you're almost certain to blow it. Hint: Some of the numbers are in the hundreds.

The Web page, which went online last month on Presidents Day, during Black History Month, is the creation of Scott Plous, the Wesleyan professor, and was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Plous said history textbooks in recent years have much greater coverage of American slavery but don't tell the whole story. "When it comes to our national heroes, there is a reluctance to say anything that might tarnish that person's record," he said. "And yet there is this other side to many of the presidents that is not widely known."

"It is important to tell the full story," he said.

According to the site, Andrew Jackson owned as many as 200 slaves at one time. While he referred to the international slave trade as inhuman and illegal, the site reports, "Jackson owned a mercantile business that engaged in the domestic slave trade, at times accepting slaves in exchange for dry goods, using them to pay off debts, or mortgaging them for loans."

Wesleyan students helped with the considerable research on the presidents, a task that took more than a year.

Once you've completed the quiz, you can click on an image of each of the first 18 presidents for details on what they said and what they actually did regarding slaves and slavery. By the way, 13 U.S. presidents owned slaves, according to the Web site.

The site also includes quizzes and other pages exploring gender and Native American issues.

Expect to flunk the Native American quiz, too.

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