Fact Check

Did Joe Biden's Great-Great-Great Grandfather Own a Slave?

An 1850 slave schedule shows that Thomas H. Randle owned a 14-year-old slave.

Published Aug. 24, 2020

Updated Sept. 21, 2021
 (Gage Skidmore)
Image Via Gage Skidmore
President Joe Biden's great-great-great grandfather owned a 14-year-old Black slave in 1850.

Biden had a great-great-great grandfather named Thomas H. Randle who was listed in the U.S. Census as living in Baltimore County's 1st district in 1850. This is the same name and district listed on an 1850 slave schedule of a man who owned a 14-year-old Black slave. 

In June 2020, a specious rumor started circulating on social media about how Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden's great-grandfather was a slave owner who fought in the Confederate Army. There was no truth to this claim. This rumor was circulated in the form of a meme that included a photograph of a Confederate soldier named Richard Young Bennett (no relation to Biden), misidentified the president's great grandfather as "Joseph J. Biden" (Biden's actual paternal great grandfather was George T. Biden), and baselessly claimed that this fictional person was a Confederate soldier and slave owner.

While that rumor was, and still is, false, it did cause some social media users to dig through Biden's family history to see if there were any familial links to slavery. In August 2020, we received a tip that Biden's great-great-great grandfather, a man by the name of Thomas Herbert Randle, was a slave owner.

The claim that Biden's great-great-great grandfather owned a slave is based on genealogy records from websites such as Ancestry.com and a slave schedule — a form used in the years 1850 and 1860 to enumerate the number of Black  slaves on the U.S. Census.

Alexander Bannerman, an honorary member of the Hereditary Society Community and the founder of the The Hereditary Order of the Families of the Presidents and First Ladies of America, told us that he had “no doubts” that Biden’s great-great-great grandfather was a slave owner.

Who Was Biden's Great-Great-Great Grandfather?

According to genealogy sites such as Wikitree, Geni.com, geneanet.org, and wargs.com, a website that traces the ancestry of United States presidents and political figures, Biden had a great-great-great grandfather named Thomas Herbert Randle.  

Randle was born in Baltimore County, Maryland, circa 1803, and would go on to marry a woman named Mary Ann Shoemaker. Randle, a farmer, had two children (at least), named William Thomas and Lydia Ann, the latter of whom married Joseph H. Biden.

Lydia and Joseph H. Biden had a child named George, who had a child named Joseph, who had a child named Joseph, who had a child that would become the president of the United States. In other words, Thomas Herbert Randle is former VP  Biden's father's (Joseph Robinette Biden, Sr.) father's (Joseph H. Biden) father's (George T. Biden) father's (Joseph H. Biden) wife's (Lydia Ann Biden) father (Thomas Herbert Randle), making him Biden's great-great-great grandfather.

Was Thomas H. Randle a Slave Owner?

According to the Maryland State Archives' "Legacy of Slavery" database, a "Thomas H. Randle" from Baltimore County reported owning a 14-year-old Black male slave in the 1850 federal census:

We accessed this record via Ancestry.com, and can confirm that a Thomas H. Randle is truly listed on this 1850 slave schedule.

Politico reported in September 2021:

Bannerman explained it is common for Americans with colonial-era roots on the continent to have ancestors who enslaved people ... For a person with colonial ancestry, Bannerman said, Biden’s ties to slavery were relatively modest. “Not a lot of ancestors, and not a lot of slaves,” he said.

Is Biden's Great-Great-Great Grandfather the Same Thomas Randle Listed on This 1850 Slave Schedule?

Bannerman told us that he had no doubts that the Thos. H. Randle (Thos is an abbreviation for Thomas) on the 1850 U.S. Census was the same Thomas H. Randle on the 1850 slave schedule. Bannerman noted that these government forms were recorded just 17 days apart by the same census taker, Samuel P. Storm, in the same district in Baltimore. Bannerman also looked at the listed relatives on these forms as well as the names that preceded and followed Randle’s name on the slave schedule to conclude that these Randles were indeed one and the same.

Here are the relevant documents: 1850 Slave Schedule / 1850 U.S. Census.

Bannerman explained:

1) The census page and the slave schedule are both from the First District of Baltimore.  The census taker in each case was Samuel P. Storm.  The census was taken AFTER the slave schedule, by only 17 days.  These consistencies are important.

2) There is only one Thomas Randle in Baltimore of an age appropriate to be the ancestor of the President.  He is the Thomas Randle in question - the one living in the First District of Baltimore.  The Thomas Randle on the census in District 1 has a wife Mary and a daughter Lydia (aged 17), precisely the correct age.  These facts, then, establish that Thomas Randle and family of District 1 in Baltimore are the correct family behind the President.

3)  With the census itself established to be the correct family, comparing the slave schedules for the same district enables us to draw a solid conclusion thusly:  

On the slave schedule immediately BEFORE Thomas Randle is Dr. Charles Richardson.  Dr. Richardson appears on the 1850 census on the page immediately preceding Thomas Randle.  Returning to the slave schedule, the person listed immediate AFTER Thomas Randle is Carroll Spence.  Mr. Spence is listed on the census on the next page after Thomas Randle.  With these consistencies, we can conclude there is no question that the Thomas Randle who owned the 14-year-old slave in 1850 is identical with the person of that name enumerated in the 1850 Census in District 1 of Baltimore.

Nothing more is needed to make this connection. I have zero doubt about this connection being correct.

Did Biden's Great-Great-Great Grandfather Have Servants?

In addition to owning a 14-year-old Black slave in 1850, Biden’s great-great-great grandfather also had servants. U.S. Census records from 1860 show that Thomas H. Randle had two “servants” named Peggy and Delia Malters, both Black women in their 40s. A 19-year-old Black “farm laborer” named Richard Savoy was also listed under Randle’s name. It should be noted that this document lists “free inhabitants” in the 13th district in Baltimore County, Maryland:

We don’t know the specific conditions about the relationships that these individuals had with Randle. While the people listed on this document were identified as “free inhabitants,” and while they may not have legally been considered slaves, people considered servants in the 1860s did not have the same freedoms as regular laborers.

PBS described the difference between an indentured servant and a slave as follows:

Servants typically worked four to seven years in exchange for passage, room, board, lodging and freedom dues. While the life of an indentured servant was harsh and restrictive, it wasn't slavery. There were laws that protected some of their rights. But their life was not an easy one, and the punishments meted out to people who wronged were harsher than those for non-servants. An indentured servant's contract could be extended as punishment for breaking a law, such as running away, or in the case of female servants, becoming pregnant.

Randle's daughter Lydia is not listed in the above-displayed image from the 1860 Census because by this time she had already married Joseph Biden (who spelled his name Byden). Lydia can be seen listed here alongside Joseph in the 1860 census.

To Sum Things Up:

President Joe Biden's great-great-great grandfather Thomas Herbert Randle was a farmer who was born circa 1803 in Maryland. Randle, whose daughter Lydia would marry Biden's great-great grandfather, Joseph H. Biden, lived in Baltimore County's 1st District in 1850, according to U.S. Census Records. A slave schedule from this same year records Randle as owning a 14-year-old Black slave.

In addition to owning a slave, Randle also had two Black servants and a Black farm laborer on the 1860 U.S. Census.  According to the census, however, these three individuals were considered "free inhabitants."

We’ve reached out to the White House in September 2021 for comment, but have yet to hear a response.


Updated [28 August 2020]: Clarified information about slaves vs. servants in the 1860s.

Update [21 September 2021} Article changed from Unproven to True after receiving additional information from a genealogist.

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.

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