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March 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more The Booklist Top of the List Interview
Best-selling author Kenneth C. Davis is one of America’s top investigators of unknown and forgotten histories, and In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives is one of his best. Four of America’s vaunted presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson—are seen here through the prism of the enslaved lives they controlled.
Billy Lee and Ona Judge were owned by George Washington. Lee, Washington’s valet, fought in the Revolutionary War, while Judge escaped from Washington’s Philadelphia home in a bid for freedom. Isaac Granger was at the Battle of Yorktown before returning to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Paul Jennings was present at the burning of James Madison’s White House during the War of 1812. And Alfred Jackson, born into slavery at Andrew Jackson’s plantation, lived to see emancipation and the turn of a new century. This book, which complicates the standard view of some of our most esteemed presidents, was selected as Booklist’s Top of List—Youth Nonfiction.
Although the general historical fact that some presidents held enslaved people is known, often the particulars are not. You’ve chosen five profiles, but there must have been many stories. How did you decide to tell this history through the lives of these particular individuals?
DAVIS: For 25 years, I’ve written about the “great contradiction”—America was conceived in liberty, but born in shackles. These five people lived 24/7 with some of America’s great presidents, and their stories are well documented. They witnessed history and often told their own stories. There certainly were others I could have told. But these five lives were especially dramatic and unique in that these individuals all gained their freedom.
The book is full of little-known facts. For instance, that slaves in Philadelphia could be freed after a six-month residency. Or that a president as late as Woodrow Wilson grew up with slavery connections. What were the most surprising things you learned in your research? Were there actions of any of the presidential principals that surprised you?
DAVIS: The first big surprise is that we have photographs of some of these people. And that a man enslaved by Andrew Jackson lived into the twentieth century. That shows how close we are to this story—it is not ancient history. Each of these lives that I discuss includes surprises: Ona Judge’s daring quest for freedom; Isaac Granger witnessing the Revolution’s final battle; Paul Jennings setting the dinner table on the day the British burned the White House—all remarkable events the school books leave out. What is most surprising about the actions of these presidents is that they knew slavery was wrong and could not last but did almost nothing to end it.
There were some people, like Benjamin Franklin, who, despite the times, disavowed slavery. What effect did they have on the discussion?
COOPER: You visited presidential homes many times as you researched the book. Can you describe what it is like to do this kind of original research?
DAVIS: Of course, we can all access documents from our computers now. But I have always been a sucker for historic sites. I do love presidential homes and battlefields. And there is no substitute for seeing, feeling, and smelling these places. The stark contrast between a grand house at Mount Vernon or Monticello and the squalid huts of the enslaved takes my breath away. I hope that this sense of authentic place gives life to the writing.
DAVIS: To be honest, the overall response from reviewers has been favorable. I’ve also gotten very gratifying reactions from readers—people who say they want to share the book with their families, which is the best review I could hope for.
COOPER: Your feelings must have run the gamut as you wrote the book. Can you tell us a little about how the writing affected you personally?
DAVIS: It is impossible to write about the lives of the enslaved without feeling despair. To describe the unspeakable tortures of the Middle Passage, the degradation of human beings in chains, and the hopelessness of millions is a daunting experience for a writer. This is a horrific story. But it is one of the most important stories in American history, and it must be told honestly, yet with a human face.
COOPER: What can we expect from you next?
DAVIS: I am working on a new book for young adults about what is now considered the greatest epidemic in history, the Spanish Flu, and the end of WWI. It happened in 1918, 100 years ago, and it is a remarkable story of a global catastrophe that killed millions and changed the world, but it is still “hidden history” to many people.
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