Friends of Liberty
Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Agrippa Hull
By Gary B. Nash and Graham Russell Gao Hodges
Nash and Hodges weave the lives of three men into the American founding’s complex tapestry of slavery and liberty. They examine Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Agrippa Hull and their responses to the political compromise that both made the American experiment possible and contradicted its founding principles.
Jefferson, author of the document that most eloquently sets forth those principles, was a member in good standing of the slave-based plantation society – a paradox that haunted him throughout his life. As a young man and a freshman Virginia legislator, Jefferson attempted a modest alteration of the laws binding slaves. He wrote a bill permitting slaveholders to free a slave without legislative approval. He asked his cousin, Richard Bland, a seasoned legislator and a respected scholar of constitutional law, to introduce the bill. To Jefferson’s horror, Bland was denounced and reviled as an enemy of his class and his country. It seems likely that Jefferson was chastened by that experience. He continued to champion Enlightenment ideals, but shrunk from living by them.
“The phrases for which the Declaration and the preamble of the Virginia constitution are justly famous” (written by Jefferson concurrently) “still come down to us, two centuries later, as rolling thunder.”
Less well known is Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence described by Nash and Hodges as revealing Jefferson’s “deep ambivalence” about slavery. In that draft he wrote,
“The Christian king of Great Britain has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”
Thus did Jefferson deftly absolve himself and other slaveholders of guilt while at the same time condemning the institution. The authors write:
“But Jefferson’s statement that it was the king who conducted the slave trade and forced Africans on the colonists was preposterous. Jefferson himself owned more than one hundred slaves at the time, was making no attempt to free them to restore their unalienable rights, and understood perfectly well that his planter friends had clamored for slaves for generations. Laboring to impassion his readers, Jefferson used bloated language to suggest that the colonists were unwilling partners in the slave trade and not complicit in instituting chattel bondage.”
What the authors view as ambivalence may also be seen as an example of Jefferson’s enormous capacity for self-delusion.
The financial, social, and political pressures attendant upon Jefferson’s association with slavery were many, and Nash and Hodges catalogue them. They point out, however, that more courageous members of Jefferson’s class were not deterred from freeing their slaves. They urged friends and neighbors to follow their example. They beseeched Jefferson in particular to use his considerable influence to take a public stand against slavery. They believed that by doing so Jefferson could hasten the end of the loathsome practice. It was not a course of action that Jefferson, the second largest slave-owner in Albemarle County, ever seriously considered.
If there is a hero in this book it is Kosciuszko who came to America from Poland in 1776 to offer his services in the War for Independence. Kosciuszko’s courage during his seven years of revolutionary war service is legendary as is his bravery during the Polish insurrection of 1794 – a valiant but failed attempt to drive the Russian Army from Poland.
Kosciuszko’s dream of a free Poland and the abolition of serfdom was not realized during his lifetime. But he, like Lafayette, exhorted Jefferson to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence and end slavery in the new nation. According to Nash and Hodges, when Kosciuszko read the Declaration of Independence he found in it an expression of everything he believed. It was the basis of a lifetime (Kosciuszko ‘s) friendship with Jefferson.
Kosciuszko is revered as the George Washington of Poland. He sacrificed and suffered terribly from wounds sustained in the effort to free his country from Russian domination. His generosity is also remembered and venerated. However, if the authors’ intent was to unfavorably compare Jefferson’s hedging with Kosciuszko’s outspoken support of abolition they had to be somewhat circumspect with the historical record. They mention, but do not elaborate, on the fact that his serfs supported Kosciuszko, a minor member of he Polish aristocracy, throughout his life.
The inclusion of Agrippa Hull in the tripartite seems contrived. It appears the authors needed Hull to refute Jefferson’s belief of black inferiority.
In Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia he claimed to have never known a single black man who could “paint a picture, compose music, form an eloquent thought, or discover a truth.” Jefferson did not view such perceived shortcomings as a result of their condition… “but nature which has produced this distinction” and made them “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
Hull was a free black man who was not only a model citizen but also one whose bravery exemplified that of many black soldiers on both sides of the war with Britain.
Hull joined the Continental Army in 1777 and served as Kosciuszko’s orderly for four years “under some of the severest conditions of the long war.”
The experience would leave each with great respect and affection for the other.
By the authors’ admission, there is no evidence that Jefferson and Hull ever met. Even Hull’s connection with Kosciuszko, although a life defining experience, was brief compared to the length of Hull’s post revolutionary years.
Little is known of that life other than a local historian’s report that Hull was respected by black and white alike as a virtuous, hardworking farmer who paid his debts, raised his children, and was an asset to his small community. The historical record is so thin that to craft Hull’s story Nash and Hull are frequently reduced to suppositions of the “may have,” “might have,” and ”could have happened” variety.
Though Jefferson and Kosciuszko knew one another in Paris in the mid-1780s, their friendship took root when Kosciuszko returned to Philadelphia in1797–98 to claim the war pension promised him by Congress. It was then that the Polish hero asked Jefferson to serve as executor of his estate upon his death. Jefferson agreed and promised to follow the will’s instructions to free and educate as many slaves as there were funds to compensate their owners. Kosciuszko specified that Jefferson’s slaves were to be first among those freed and educated. The will also directed that Kosciuszko’s Polish funds be used to free the serfs on his estate in Poland.
Not only did Jefferson renege on his sworn promise to serve as executor and honor Kosciuszko’s wishes, he did so in a particularly deceitful manner.
Jefferson’s excuse for abdicating as executor was that he was too old and infirm to see to conclusion a matter whose resolution might exceed his remaining years. At the time, Jefferson was engaged in a difficult quest to establish a University in Virginia. The man too infirm to cope with the rigors of settling his friend’s estate “rode thirty miles on horseback over two days, accompanied by Madison, to reach Rockfish Gap, where a show down conference would decide the fate of the University.” The authors note that in persuading others to take over as executor Jefferson misrepresented the terms of will as they applied to himself and his slaves.
Kosciuszko died in 1817 (the will was written in1798) but because of Jefferson’s dereliction the estate was not settled until 1852. In the interim, the will was passed along from one executor to another and from court to court as the years went by and relatives and former friends made claims upon the estate. Finally, disposition of the estate was made by the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roger Taney presiding. The same Justice Taney known for the 1857 Dred Scott decision upholding slavery. Taney ruled Kosciuszko’s 1798 will invalid and directed the estate be distributed among the Polish claimants.
Nash and Hodges detail the whole tawdry story. The authors also dwell on Jefferson’s purported liaison with Sally Hemings and his failure to use estate funds to free her and the children he is alleged to have fathered. This reviewer, however, could find no substantiating evidence for the affair, despite efforts to do so. Its veracity remains controversial. The emphasis on Hemings is superfluous and undermines an otherwise credible history. Serious readers of American history know Jefferson’s shortcomings. Ornamentation is not required.
Jefferson’s character flaws not withstanding, he became, in the authors’ words,
“the touchstone and watchword of American democracy. Even more than George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, or John Adams, he is the national and international embodiment of such tenets of modern liberal democracy as universal suffrage, freedom of religion, public education, the erasure of all vestiges of feudalism, and careers open to talent.”
Which brings up a greater point. The achievements of the revolutionary generation were extraordinary, and must be recognized as such. But they were men, not gods, and we are well advised to remember that.