Jefferson & Betrayal

Liberty had many friends in the eighteenth century. Here, in the book by Gary Nash and Graham Hodges, are three who took a stand for it in the American Revolution. Agrippa Hull of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a free black American, fought for it in the Continental Army as an orderly to Colonel Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish military engineer who crossed the ocean to help the Americans against the British. Years later, after fighting losing battles for Polish freedom, Kosciuszko struck a blow for the liberty of America’s enslaved blacks, in a pact with the third of the trio, the man whose words still speak for liberty in the Declaration he wrote in 1776.

Thomas Jefferson easily steals the show. He always does. Is it because he charms us as much as he charmed the people who trusted him with public office? Is it because he spoke so eloquently for what Americans want to think they are or can be? Is it because we recognize his shortcomings as our own? Or because we flatter ourselves that they are not ours? In Friends of Liberty he steals the show by disappointing us, as he does so often. Nash and Hodges sketch the lives of their other two subjects in as much detail as his, but the black Yankee and the Polish patriot earn their place in this book by giving him a show to steal.

Why else can Agrippa Hull be there? Hull’s devotion to liberty can be shown only by association with Kosciuszko’s. We are told what Hull might have said or might have done in Kosciuszko’s presence at Ticonderoga, Saratoga, Valley Forge, and Monmouth Courthouse. But he left no traces of himself in any of those places. And what we learn of him in Stockbridge comes from the people he worked for. His first employer was Theodore Sedgwick, an eminent lawyer, whose young daughter he helped to look after. If his service with Kosciuszko makes him a friend of liberty, his much longer and better-documented life as Sedgwick’s household servant tells a different story.

Before Hull’s return to Stockbridge after the war, Sedgwick had also acted as a friend of liberty by arguing one of the legal cases that helped to end slavery in Massachusetts. But during the time that Hull served him Sedgwick showed no interest in taking liberty any further. His prominent role in lawsuits that deprived many people of their homes in the hard times of the late 1780s made him and his newly built mansion a target for the insurgents in Daniel Shays’s rebellion of 1787. Faithful to the standing order, Hull enlisted in a militia company to quash the uprising.

As a congressman Sedgwick took a leading role in the passage of the first Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. He proposed sending the army to punish Virginia for passing the resolution that James Madison wrote against the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. As an ardent Federalist Sedgwick …

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