‘Friends of Liberty’ reveals Jefferson’s hypocrisy
The great hypocrisy of America’s 18th-century fight for freedom is no secret, as the very people who led the charge for liberty were slaveholders.
“Friends of Liberty,” however, takes this tragic double-standard even deeper, weaving together the lives of three men whose common cause was to free America from the clutches of the British. But slavery, not the American Revolution, is the central focus of “Friends of Liberty,” written by Gary P. Nash and Graham Russell Gao Hodges.
It is a story of betrayal by one of America’s most revered figures, Thomas Jefferson, and the loyalty of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish hero who also played an integral role in the American Revolution. Thrown into the mix is the lesser-known Agrippa Hull, a black New Englander who served under Kosciuszko in the Revolutionary War.
Hull joined the Continental Army and served under Kosciuszko, who crossed the Atlantic to help defeat the British. Kosciuszko and Jefferson, meanwhile, developed a bond so close that the Pole asked Jefferson to oversee his will. Kosciuszko, who returned to Europe and would die in Switzerland, had struck a pact with Jefferson, in which the third U.S. president would free Kosciuszko’s American slaves when he died.
The household name in “”Friends of Liberty” is obviously Jefferson, the crafter of the Declaration of the Independence but a man who lived in conflict with regard to the slavery debate. Jefferson’s racist beliefs were indeed deep-seated: He owned slaves, he felt blacks were inferior and spoke harshly against mixed marriages, yet he carried on for years an intimate relationship with Sally Hemings, a black woman.
The paradox, however, was that Jefferson had made clear his intentions for across-the-board freedom, including blacks. In the end, though, he failed to honor his word, reneging on his vow to Kosciuszko. Kosciuszko would die in 1817 and Jefferson in 1826, with the promise to liberate the slaves unfulfilled.
Hull, meanwhile, plays more of a peripheral role in “Friends of Liberty.” His bond with Kosciuszko was unmistakable, and likely helped fuel both Kosciuszko’s zeal to free American slaves and his reverence for the black race. Hull would die in 1848.
At times the intertwining of the three men seems a stretch, but it’s a fascinating snippet of American history nonetheless. Often tedious but still rewarding, “Friends of Liberty” is a sobering account of a young nation as it wrestled with slavery, and of how Jefferson’s bigotry tainted his legacy and discredited his pursuit of liberty and justice for all.
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I try to remember to give thanks every day I spend outside, whether it be floating the Colorado or Roaring Fork, fishing an epic dry fly hatch on the Fryingpan, or teasing up tiny brook trout on a remote lake or stream. We’re spoiled rotten here, so it’s easy to be thankful.