Friends of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and Agrippa Hull: A Tale of Three Patriots, Two Revolutions, and a Tragic Betrayal of Freedom in the New Nation
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 taught his daughter Catherine to “look upon a Democrat as an enemy to his country,” and when Jefferson became president in 1800 he retired from politics to nurse his bitterness from a seat on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Hull stayed with him for seven more years before taking a job with Barnabas Bidwell, another Massachusetts lawyer, who had belatedly abandoned the fading Federalist Party for Jefferson’s Republicans. Association with Bidwell was a poor choice. In 1810 Bidwell was charged with embezzling $10,000 from Berkshire County and fled to Canada. His erstwhile servant lived on in Stockbridge until his death in 1848, acquiring and farming a small parcel of land, doing odd jobs, waiting on tables at festivities, and making a name as a village philosopher who delivered his homely wisdom in impromptu rhymes.
The town historian remembered Agrippa Hull as “perfectly free from all airs and show of consequence.” He did not, so far as we are told, become a spokesman for the abolition of slavery, which is what the rest of this book is about. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the authors have included him as a foil to the Southern aristocrat who could speak so eloquently against slavery while living off it in a conspicuous show of consequence.
Kosciuszko, too, is here as a foil to Jefferson, but a much more instructive one. Like Jefferson he lived off the labor of others, the labor of people whom he virtually owned. One of Poland’s lesser nobility, he was lord over hundreds of serfs. Like Jefferson he thought it was wrong for a part of mankind to ride booted and spurred over the rest. Unlike Jefferson, he shed his own boots and spurs. At his death he freed his serfs. Long before that, on a return visit to America in 1798, he collected his back pay as an officer in the Continental Army and made a will specifying how this money was to be used: in buying the freedom of American slaves and
in giving them en education in trades or othervise and in having them instructed for their new condition in the duties of morality which may make them good neigh bours good fathers or moders, husbands or vives and in their duties as citisens teeching them to be defenders of their Liberty and Country and of the good order of Society and in whatever may Make them happy and useful.
To carry out his intentions Kosciuszko appointed a new and trusted friend, Thomas Jefferson. There can be no doubt that Jefferson, a lawyer by training, accepted this charge, set forth in words that he helped to craft. Although Kosciuszko made later wills in Europe, he intended this one to govern the disposition of his American funds. One of his last letters to Jefferson refers to “la destination invariable” of his money. By declaring in the will that “I hereby authorise my friend Thomas Jefferson to employ the whole thereof in purchasing Negroes from among his own or any others and giving them Liberty in my name,” Kosciuszko directed Jefferson to give his slaves their freedom at no cost to himself.
The contradictions that Jefferson exhibited in what he said and did at different times still preoccupy his biographers. He was the great champion of states’ rights in the 1790s, magnified the federal government’s powers during his presidency, and then in retirement returned to championing states’ rights. He hated owing money, but like a compulsive gambler found himself racking up debts to purchase fine wines, rare books, bibelots, and the other luxury items that made Monticello a showplace. He hated slavery, but not enough to curb the high style of living that it provided him.
Kosciuszko’s generosity provided an opportunity to reduce, if not eliminate, this particular contradiction, not to say this hypocrisy, which Jefferson declined. When Kosciuszko died in 1817, Jefferson was in the process of founding the University of Virginia, an achievement equated on his tombstone with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty. Kosciuszko’s will had directed him to provide for the education of the slaves he was to free. Busy as he was with the higher education of white male Virginians, he declared himself too old and feeble to fulfill the trust laid on him by his dear friend.
While Jefferson was indeed old, being then seventy-four, visitors to his hilltop retreat found him lively in body and mind. It was probably something more than flagging energies that made him unwilling to complete this one task. The authors tell us that at any time after Kosciuszko’s death Jefferson could have bought and freed a large number of his slaves, perhaps all of them, under the terms of the will. Moreover, he had a fiduciary duty to do so. As will be seen, Jefferson did not wish to be the means of introducing more free blacks into a land from which he wanted them gone.
By happenstance the American Colonization Society was founded in the year of Kosciuszko’s death. To Americans troubled by slavery but leery of racial mixing and fearful of racial strife, the ACS offered a way to educate and emancipate slaves while deporting them to Africa, where they would savor their newfound freedom in a colony rejoicing in the name of Liberia. John Hartwell Cocke, who collaborated with Jefferson on the university project, was an active supporter of the society. To this friend Jefferson transferred the executorship and the embarrassment of Kosciuszko’s bequest, evidently hoping that Cocke would be able to make it serve the purposes of the society. Yet Kosciuszko’s money was still held in trust in 1847, when it amounted to nearly $50,000. The fund had probably increased in value by 1852 when the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roger Taney (five years before his Dred Scott decision) declared Kosciuszko’s American will invalid and ordered distribution of the money to his heirs in Europe.
If Jefferson’s mind were not so full of contortions, it would be surprising that he accepted Kosciuszko’s charge in the first place. His conception of emancipation had always contemplated a Virginia purged of black people. He spent the years from 1776 to 1779 on a committee to rewrite the laws that the state had inherited from its existence as a colony. Among its proposals, “A Bill concerning Slaves,” prepared by Jefferson and introduced in the legislature in 1785, would gradually have rid Virginia of slaves by withholding “the protection of the laws” from any imported thereafter and from any who were emancipated but failed to leave the state within one year.
He left no loopholes: “If any white woman shall have a child by a negro or mulatto, she and her child shall depart the commonwealth within one year thereafter. If they fail to do so, the woman shall be out of the protection of the laws,” and so would her child if he or she failed to depart after reaching adulthood in service to an assigned master. These provisions were too draconian for the other members of the legislature and were struck from the bill as enacted, which merely forbade importation of slaves and restricted the movements and rights of existing slaves.
Jefferson’s views on the subject did not change. Only once before his collaboration with Kosciuszko had he considered actually freeing his slaves. In 1788, responding to a friend’s inquiries about a Quaker project to transform slaves into rent-paying tenants, Jefferson wrote briefly of his intention to try something similar. He would import German farmers and mix them with slaves as tenants on his lands in the diluted form of serfdom (metayage), similar to sharecropping, that still survived in France. The Germans would teach the slaves and their children the habits needed for freedom, and the children would grow up free. He never again mentioned this idea in any of his surviving papers. His Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) presented a proposal for educating, emancipating, and deporting Virginia’s slaves. But he did not pursue this solution or any other in the remainder of his long political career.