In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that every human has a right to three things: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He argued that no person had the right to take any of these three things away from another person. However, while he wrote these words about liberty for all, at home on his estate, Monticello—he kept slaves. How could Jefferson and many of the other Founding Fathers such as George Washington and James Madison fight for freedom while enslaving people themselves? Who were the enslaved people who were so directly denied their liberty by the founding fathers?
These are the complicated questions that author Kenneth C. Davis asks in his book In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Live—this month’s book for our Reading into History Family Book Club. In his powerful book, Davis tells the stories of those who lived “in the shadow” of the Founding Fathers and shows how these stories give us a deeper understanding of our country’s founding.
Davis will be joining us for our meeting this Saturday, December 17, when he will participate in a discussion of his book and then accompany us to the library to look at artifacts related to slavery under the founding fathers. To prepare for our meeting, DiMenna Children’s History Museum interviewed Davis about his book. Think about what questions you have for Davis—you’ll have the chance to ask him at our meeting!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: In your book you write about lives that are not in most history textbooks. Why is it important for young people to know these stories?
Kenneth C. Davis: It’s true—these are stories of real people who have been left out of most history books. We cannot understand slavery and its central place in American history without understanding the lives of people such as the five individuals I write about in In the Shadow of Liberty. Their stories get at the great contradiction in American history: that a country “conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles.
DCHM: In the first chapter you note that thirteen American presidents either owned enslaved people or were raised in slaveholding households. Why did you choose to focus on the enslaved individuals “in the shadow” of the first four slaveholding presidents in particular?
Kenneth C. Davis: Actually, I focused on four of the first seven presidents who were slaveholders. I wanted to show how important slavery was to the foundation and establishment of the nation and the presidency. These men in particular—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson—have occupied such a prominent place in America’s memory. But their role as slaveholders has been obscured. I wanted to shine a light on that aspect of their lives.
DCHM: When you are discussing Billy Lee, a man who was enslaved by George Washington, you mention that he did not leave a record of any of the major events that he witnessed in his lifetime. What are some of the difficulties you encountered when writing about people who leave very little behind? How do you work around these difficulties?
Kenneth C. Davis: That is a really important question. One reason I focused on these five lives—William Lee, Ona Judge, Isaac Granger, Paul Jennings, and Alfred Jackson—is the fact that we have far more documentation of their lives than was typical of many enslaved people. They lived 24/7 in the households of some of the most prominent men in history. So, even though William Lee doesn’t leave any record, there are many references to him in documents relating to Washington, including Washington’s last will and testament. And some of the other individuals did leave personal writings. In three cases, we actually have photographs.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives?
Kenneth C. Davis: Human. Accessible. Significant. Human in the sense that these are real stories of real people. Accessible in the sense that the stories are written in a language and style I think can be read by a wide-ranging audience. And significant because we must understand the role of slavery in our past and how it continues to reverberate and play out in so many of the deep divisions we still face today.
See you this Sunday, December 17, to meet Davis and his discuss his book at our Reading into History Family Book Club!
—Written by Caitlin O’Keefe