Friday, September 23, 2016
In the Shadow of Liberty
by Kenneth C. Davis
304 pages; ages 10 - 14
Henry Holt, 2016
"Most of us learn something about the US presidents," writes Kenneth Davis. "But this book is about some people who are not so famous."
Davis introduces us to five enslaved people who lived with and worked for four famous founding fathers: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. These enslaved people were bought and paid for by the writers of the Declaration of Independence, the very same men who declared that all men are created equal and fought for their own freedom from another master, the king.
William "Billy" Lee, Ona Judge, Isaac Granger, Paul Jennings, and Alfred Jackson witnessed extraordinary events in America's history. Because they were "owned" by men we consider great presidents, we know their names and part of their stories, says Davis. Because of their connections to these presidents, there are records about who they were and how they lived - records that help us understand what being enslaved meant in early America.
It is fitting that this book hits the shelves this week, as September 22, 1862 is the day that President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Under the War Powers act, Lincoln warned that he would order the freedom of all slaves in any state that did not end its rebellion against the Union by January first 1863.
Davis begins his history with a look at how slavery began, and the importation of slaves to the colonies. By 1700, he notes that enslaved people are being imported into Virginia at the rate of 1,000 per year. Each subsequent chapter focuses on the story of one enslaved person and his (or her) connection with a president.
Billy Lee was George Washington's valet, a personal manservant who attended Washington at home and on the battlefield. He was entrusted to deliver notes and letters, he rode in hunts, he accompanied Washington when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. Davis points out that Washington, having seen black soldiers fight against the British, began to question slavery. "The contradiction between the ideals he had fought for and the enslavement of people like Billy Lee was now obvious," writes Davis. And yet, when Ona Judge escaped to find her freedom, Washington posted a reward for her return.
At the end of each chapter is a timeline of slavery in America. These points in history - British banning the slave trade (1804), Thomas Jefferson signing a ban on importing slaves (1807) put the personal stories into a national and international context. Historic photos, cartoons and illustrations from the archives add to our understanding of the history. I appreciate the chapter notes, bibliography, and index.
"The history we learn is often about dates, battles, famous speeches, and court decisions," writes Davis. "But in the end, history is not just about wars and constitutional amendments, facts we memorize. It is about people. This book tells the real story of real people—all of them born in slavery’s shackles—who were considered the property of some American heroes." You can read an excerpt from the book here.
Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews Review copy provided by the publisher.