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New Books: In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives

Reading Listamy sharonyComment

The question that always comes up when we’re talking about people like the Founding Fathers is this one: How could the people whose legacy is the freedom and democracy established by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution keep slaves? This book doesn’t attempt to answer that unanswerable question. Instead, it shines a spotlight on some of the people enslaved by these heroes of early U.S. history—which, in the case of this well-researched and utterly compelling collection of mini biographies, feels like the only reasonable way to approach this not-so-beautiful piece of our history.

Davis focuses on the lives of five enslaved people (he specifically avoids calling them slaves because of the way that word can dehumanize people by reducing them to property): Billy Lee, who was George Washington’s valet; Ona Judge, another enslaved member of Washington’s household who the family pursued aggressively when she escaped to freedom; Isaac Granger, a skilled metal worked owned by Thomas Jefferson and given by him, along with the rest of the Granger family, to his daughter as a wedding present; Paul Jennings, who served as James Madison’s valet, and Alfred Jackson, who was an enslaved person owned by Andrew Jackson’s family. At first, these may seem like stories of ordinary, everyday people, but that’s the point: For every person like Billy Lee who left more than a bill of purchase in the annals of history, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, whose stories we just don’t know. Davis does a great job piecing together the scraps of available history into narratives that capture the experience of being a slave in the early days of the United States. Some of it is really hard to read—Washington’s dogged pursuit of his escaped slave stood out for me—but these feel like stories that need to be told. I also appreciated that Davis addresses upfront the problem of history and enslaved people—namely, that slaves are not likely to speak ill of masters with the power of life and death over them and that chroniclers of enslaved people might have had a tendency to pick and choose what they included in their narratives, often biasing their work toward positive comments. 

This book isn’t a hatchet job on our Founding Fathers, but it does point out the inherent contradictions between their ideal of democracy and their pragmatic approach to slavery in their own lives. I think this should be on every middle grades and high school U.S. history reading list. I had a few problems with the book—the author has a tendency to talk down to his audience and overexplain, which got in the way for me sometimes—but on the whole, it’s an excellent read on an important subject and well worth adding to your library hold list, stat.