We know the biographies and histories of the presidents. Or at least we think we do. But what about the men and women who serve the presidents? What about the men and women whom the presidents owned? We may not like to think of the Founding Fathers, who shaped American freedom, as slave holders, but the fact is, many of them were. Kenneth C. Davis tells the stories of some of the enslaved people owned by presidents in In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.
An uncomfortable fact: twelve U.S. presidents were slave owners. Many other Founding Fathers owned slaves. Davis writes, "These men fought for independence and were true believers in concepts like liberty and equality. How could such men keep other human beings as slaves, denying their freedom and basic rights?" This is a great irony of history.
On George Washington: "For a man who had fought so long and hard for freedom, it is astonishing Washington could not comprehend that an enslaved person might want the same right."
On Thomas Jefferson: "Jefferson wrote about the ideals and principles of equality and even proposed some small steps toward ending American slavery. But he also owned people and was completely dependent on them for his livelihood and personal comfort until the day he died."
On James Madison: "James Madison, the political leader and revolutionary, knew that slavery was wrong. But Madison the slaveholder was ruled by fear and self-interest. . . . Madison hoped for an end to slavery. But . . . he also believed that America could never be an integrated society, with whites and blacks living together under one government."
Davis tells the stories of slaves who were owned by U.S. presidents, illustrating and emphasizing this irony. William Lee, Ona Judge, Isaac Granger, Paul Jennings, and Alfred Jackson's names are remembered because of their proximity to power. But millions of other slaves' names are forgotten to history because of the obscurity of their owners. While in many cases slaves of prominent individuals were well treated and faithful to their owners, this doesn't change the fact of human bondage and the injustice of the system. And even heroes of American history, like Washington and Jefferson, had enormous blind spots as they callously treated their slaves like chattel, merchandise, currency, or tools.
Some of their slaves ran away. Others served faithfully throughout their lifetimes. Davis is careful not to demonize their owners, but he does not sugar coat their actions and attitudes. There is no question that our early presidents are worthy of honor for their work and inspiration in the early days of our nation. But we must not forget the costs. Davis reminds us of the inhumanity and assaults on human dignity and freedom that formed the background of the founding years. There's no getting around the fact that slavery was an ugly, terrible institution. And there's not denying its place in our history. Davis does us a service by bringing these enslaved individuals' histories to light.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!