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.
Probably most Virginians who endorsed a general abolition shared his objective of a white Virginia, but not all. William Short, whom Jefferson cherished as his “adoptive son,” had a vision of America as a melting pot. Writing to Jefferson in 1798, Short dwelt at length upon a gradual disappearance of “the aversion…to the mixture of the two colors” so that “all of our Southern inhabitants should advance to the middle ground between their present color and black.” Short urged upon Jefferson the promotion of such a future by “the statesman, the philosopher, the philanthrope.” Jefferson received Short’s appeal and answered it less than a week before he helped Kosciuszko write his will. Responding to some of Short’s incidental requests, he remained silent on his main point.
Of the Virginians who abhorred slavery and linked emancipation with exile, St. George Tucker offered the most ingenious scheme to encompass both. In a tract indicting slavery as a threat to republican government, Tucker proposed a plan for gradual emancipation on terms barring freed slaves from the rights enjoyed by other Virginians, “including suffrage and the right to hold office, own land, keep arms, marry a white person, or serve as witness or juror in cases involving whites.” Denial of these rights, Tucker hoped, would be enough to make free black Virginians go somewhere else. In praising Tucker for his efforts, Jefferson predicted disaster for Virginia if some mode of emancipation was not worked out. But he did not actively support this scheme, and he probably was dissatisfied with Tucker’s circuitous route to exile.
In advance of his countrymen in so many ways, Jefferson was also ahead in embodying the virulent racism that preceded and followed the Civil War. Emancipation, he believed, with or without education, would inevitably produce a bloodbath if blacks remained nearby, a slaughter ending in “the extermination of the one or the other race.” His Notes on the State of Virginia concluded a discussion of the physical and mental capacities of blacks by comparing them to the white slaves of ancient Rome. “Among the Romans,” he asserted, “emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second [step] is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.”
While uttering these sentiments Jefferson well knew that Virginia masters had long been staining their blood. One of his slaves, Sally Hemings, who arrived at his household in France in 1787, was the half-sister of his deceased wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. Jefferson would soon mix his blood with Hemings’s by fathering her children. He carried her back to Virginia but never freed her. Their long, complicated, and close relationship, soon to be examined in a study by Annette Gordon-Reed,* need not detain us here. But the fact that she remained his lover and his chattel is one more bizarre contradiction in a life that thrived on contradictions.
Hemings was still at Monticello with over 130 other slaves when the Marquis de Lafayette came for a two-week visit in 1825. He subjected Jefferson to a torrent of friendly rebukes for not freeing them. Lafayette’s secretary, in a gesture whose irony was lost on both Jefferson and the marquis, suggested a compromise: transforming them into serfs, attached to the land, so that they could not be sold away from their homes. But sold away they were. When Jefferson died a year later, his slaves, with the exception of Hemings’s children, went to the highest bidder. Hemings herself was withheld from auction and freed at last by Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who was, of course, her niece.
Jefferson remains an enigma. While he steals the show in Nash and Hodges’s book, he is treated with the respect that his achievements will always command. But his betrayal of Kosciuszko adds one more, previously unnoticed, to the list of his many betrayals, of himself and of the liberty he enshrined.
In his premonition of a sanguinary outcome to emancipation, Jefferson observed that “the Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” He derived his conceptions of God’s attributes and of human equality from moral philosophy rather than personal religious experience. But even as he wrote the words, other Americans were feeling the almighty presence in religious revivals. Many thousands were “born again” to a new life with new imperatives concerning what God required of men and what human equality meant. Especially among the Methodists, who reached America in the 1770s, the new birth generated an urge, amounting to a duty, to bring the experience of God’s grace to others. The Methodists sought souls wherever they could find listeners and did not hesitate to reach out to slaves. By 1786, when they counted 20,000 adherents, nearly 2,000 were black.
Among them was Richard Allen, converted in 1777, when he was seventeen and a slave to a Delaware planter. Allen talked his master into selling him his freedom for the large sum of $2,000, money he earned by cutting firewood from sundown to sunup, the slave’s traditional allotment of personal time. While carting salt during the Revolution, Allen held fast to his Christian calling: “I never forgot to serve my Lord…. I used oft-times to pray, sitting, standing or lying.” He was freed in 1783 and immediately began a career as an itinerant Methodist preacher, for the Methodists did not require formal training or ordination.
The rest of Allen’s life, recorded in detail in Richard Newman’s biography, is an emblematic story of hard-earned economic and evangelical success. In Philadelphia, where he finally settled, he continued to preach on street corners, sometimes five times a day. He learned the skills of chimney sweeping, one of the trades open to free blacks. As a master sweep he took apprentices and built a thriving business in addition to opening a nail factory. Acquiring land in larger and larger amounts, he eventually earned in annual property rentals as much as many Philadelphians made in a year. Conscious of his good fortune and eager to share his prosperity, he led in founding the Free African Society (1787) to encourage mutual aid among blacks. Nor did he stop preaching. He did not forget the obligations conferred by his new birth that, in his belief, eradicated all differences between man and man.
When Methodists organized as a church in 1784, they harbored antislavery principles. The following year the church adopted a discipline excluding slaveholders from membership, but said nothing about racial equality. At St. George’s, where Allen occasionally preached, black members originally sat wherever they chose. After they became numerous, the trustees required them to sit along the walls. When it was next decreed that blacks be segregated in a newly built balcony, Allen led them all in a walkout. Records differ about the exact date of this event, but what followed was the creation of a separate black congregation, which first met in a blacksmith shop on a plot of Allen’s land. In 1794 this congregation dedicated themselves as a church, which became famous as “the Mother Bethel,” and two years later incorporated as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Organization of the AME Church followed the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that devastated Philadelphia. Allen and other blacks, erroneously believed to be immune to the disease by virtue of their race, did the city heroic service in caring for the sick and burying the dead. As no good deed goes unpunished, theirs was followed by complaints of overcharging for services (often performed gratis) and, predictably, of insolence, theft, and looting. Allen responded with a reasoned defense of black contributions to the city’s survival in a publication that contained a carefully worded appeal for the abolition of slavery. “Will you,” he asked, “plead our incapacity for freedom, and our contented condition under oppression, as a sufficient cause for keeping us under the grievous yoke?”
No one answered, but Allen emerged not only as a leader of black Methodists but as a spokesman for all blacks within a white-dominated society. From that position he eventually espoused in desperation what Jefferson had presented as a positive goal, that free blacks should leave the United States. Jefferson described them as incapable of living peaceably with whites; Allen despaired of whites ever letting them try. Allen was sure that Jefferson was wrong about the inevitability of bloody conflict between freedmen and their former masters. As a Christian he urged recognition of the universal human equality that Jefferson proclaimed but did not entirely believe.
The trouble was that so many other Americans refused to believe it. Even the Pennsylvania Abolition Society excluded members of the race it was dedicated to liberating. In published pleas for fair treatment of blacks Allen had always to express a studied deference that he did not feel. As his church grew and generated others, he had continually to divide his energies between building a black identity and promoting the integration of blacks as equals in American society.
As other historians have pointed out, black identity—the consciousness among blacks of a common cultural bond—had to be achieved in America, not Africa. It had to be built and fostered among peoples who in Africa had belonged to a variety of disparate, often hostile, cultures. Newman sees Richard Allen as a black founding father, engaged in developing “a nation within a nation,” joining blacks to one another in separate institutions within the new republic. It has been a continuing challenge in which charismatic preachers have had a central role.
Allen foreshadowed Martin Luther King Jr. in repudiating violence as a means to this end. At every step Allen had to contend with white Americans for whom the blackness of blacks precluded their ever enjoying the same rights or even the same nationality. These prejudices were much stronger in Allen’s time than in King’s. Doubting that they could ever be overcome, Allen flirted with the solution dictated by the racism that drove the American Colonization Society. By 1817 young free blacks were not finding the same economic opportunities that Allen had enjoyed or made for himself in Philadelphia. But when a mass meeting of three thousand at his church listened to an appeal for the Colonization Society, they answered it with a resounding no. Most of them had been born in the United States. It was home to them, however degraded the condition in which their country kept them.
Allen did not give up. As bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an honor conferred on him in 1816, he mixed the old evangelical fervor of mainstream Methodism with a determination to open a better future for blacks, if not in America then abroad. Haiti had emerged from revolution in 1825 as the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere. In correspondence with its president, Allen received promises of land and rights for black Americans who would move there, and several thousand took the offer. Their emigration alarmed Southern planters, who thought Haiti too close to home and ripe to become a haven for slaves who dared to run away and take ship for the island republic.
Before many years had elapsed, however, most of those who had tried the Haitian experiment chose to return to what Allen himself called “our mother country.” Here they joined the growing number of free blacks, who held their first national convention, Allen presiding, in 1830. He pressed the convention members to consider Canada, where many slaves had already escaped to freedom and a measure of social and political equality. He was urging that solution when he died the next year, still imbued with his faith in the gospel of liberty yet conscious of the limits of American equality.
Jefferson hovers over this book too. He was wrong, and Allen knew he was wrong, about the racial bloodbath. When the nation sundered, there was war between North and South, not between white and black. But Allen was also right about the prospects of free blacks in the United States. As Jefferson had predicted, racial hostility grew among whites as blacks gained their freedom. Even the radical abolitionists, who opened their campaign as Allen was dying, did not generally identify liberty with equality. If the people who shouted no to colonization in 1817 believed that they would ever enjoy in their mother country the equality that Allen wanted for them, they were wrong. It did not happen in their time. Has it in ours?
June 26, 2008