A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War

By William G. Thomas III. Yale University Press, 2020. 432 pages. $35/hardcover  or eBook.

As a historian, I probably fully read 30 to 35 histories a year, plus scan and flip through as many more; without a doubt, this volume is the best I have put my hand to in many a year. It is an object lesson in what a fine history should be: deeply researched on a seemingly small but significant topic, clearly written with an overarching theme, and likely to be a forerunner of subsequent books exploring its approach. And that doesn’t mention the author’s personal engagement that grabs and holds the reader’s interest.

Its author, a professor at the University of Nebraska, treats Prince George’s County, Md., which hugs almost half the eastern perimeter of the District of Columbia. It was one of the largest slaveholding areas in that state. Thomas follows the suits for freedom filed there by enslaved people from the 1780s until the start of the Civil War, and he maintains his focus on the members of the freed families as they struggle to maintain themselves in that desired status. Their lawyers—up to the renown of Francis Scott Key, writer of the words of what became the country’s national anthem and a slaveholder himself—creatively used England’s common law and loopholes in Maryland’s statutes to win a startling number of cases for their clients.

A good bit of the story centers on Jesuit plantations that relied on enslaved people to produce their crops and support their institutions, including Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., making Jesuit priests look and sound like Alabama Baptist slaveholding cotton planters. That may be surprising enough, but Thomas finds that an entire line of his own ancestors bought, sold, and kept enslaved people, and at the end of each chapter, he includes an addendum containing his reflections on how his Duckett forebears dealt with the matters he has just covered. Recounted history, in some eyes deadly and dry, here becomes personal and gripping.

When enslaved people at Georgetown were sold southward to sugar plantations to raise money for new buildings on the university campus—something many will already have heard of—Thomas follows them to Louisiana and traces their unsuccessful efforts to use that state’s laws to gain freedom, as others had already done in Maryland.

There is almost nothing that sullies Thomas’s work. True, Yale University Press dropped a preposition on page 153, and our author fails to identify Reuben Crandall as a Quaker. Brother of Prudence Crandall, a Connecticut girls’ school teacher of some fame, Reuben Crandall faced indictment for sedition at Key’s hands in 1836, merely because he owned printed abolitionist material. Unable to pay the shockingly high bail amount (a request made by Key), Crandall was jailed for almost eight months. Once before a jury, he was quickly acquitted, even though soon after he paid for his incarceration by dying from tuberculosis contracted while in jail.

Long will this masterful book find acclaim, and may many people find reason to read and ponder its message: behind the scenes of what appeared to be the monolithic antebellum South, persistent enslaved people found legal ways to gain their freedom and keep it. This is a fine story, finely told.

Larry Ingle is retired from the History Department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is a member of Chattanooga (Tenn.) Meeting.

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