Sunday, April 23, 2017

In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives by Kenneth C. Davis

Listening to "Hamilton" is very nearly the only thing I've done for the past four months.  I've also read all sorts of things about the founding fathers included in the play and I keep discovering new lyrics that resonate each time I listen to the music.  One of the most recent lines that caught my attention is Jefferson's "Looking at the rolling fields I can't believe that we are free."  The irony is great considering how appreciative he is to be free of Britain but totally missing the point of his own role as a slave owner.  That's pretty much the point of this whole book.  These men who truly did amazing things that still hold up our society today, also did some horrible things and often didn't see that contradiction.  Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson are all included in the book and all have complicated stories relating to slavery.  (On a "Hamilton" side note, Philip Schuyler is listed at the beginning which prompted me to find out that Eliza brought some slaves to her marriage to Alexander so he also shares in this complicated story between abolitionist and slave-owner.)

I learned a lot from this book and it wasn't stuff that made me happy.  It's stuff that we'd prefer to ignore in order to keep our heroes of history pure.  However, I don't feel like learning that these men we not all perfect diminishes their impact on history.  People are not all good nor all bad.  All of us do things that can and will be judged as good or bad by others around us and by history.  It is easy to say that slavery was accepted at that time so these men did not do anything wrong and that we shouldn't apply today's standards to the 18th and 19th century.  I can agree with that argument to an extent, but Davis' intricate research makes it clear that all of these men had some doubts themselves about the morality of owning others.  But those doubts didn't make Washington go any easier on Ona Judge who escaped and whom he tried to recapture for years.  So it's that contrast between beliefs and actions that makes the stories of our forefathers compelling.  We just have to accept the entire man:  owning slaves does not mean that the great work they did in establishing our country is not noteworthy nor does the amazing work they did mean we can overlook the fact that they were okay with owning other people.  (A surprise to me about Jackson, given that he is now embraced by all sorts of alt-right groups, was to find out that he was one of the kindest to his slaves.)

My criticism of the book is that I felt its premise was to show us that the enslaved people were as deserving of having their history written about as the presidents who owned them, that they also had full lives outside of being enslaved.  I agree with that premise.  However, because of the lack of records that were kept for slaves, their stories felt thin and the chapters still seemed to be mostly about the presidents and their lives.  Obviously, this is making some of the point in and of itself, but maybe the book should've been reframed somehow because of this.

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