Lots of political arguments begin and end with the phrase “our founding fathers…” and yet, while we know a lot about these founding fathers (who were also some of our first presidents) not much is mentioned about how the majority of them owned enslaved people.
In fact, four out of the first five presidents of the United States owned people they considered their “property.” From George Washington to Andrew Jackson, these men we often revere thought that owning a person was okay for most of, if not all of their lives.
In the Shadow of Liberty: The hidden history of slavery, four presidents and five black lives by Kenneth C. Davis is a powerful look at a part of our history we are still trying to make sense of and come to terms with – often without any success.
Davis looks at what it was like to live with and be owned by these powerful men in American history, and how many enslaved people played a large, but silent role in contributing to that image. From Billy Lee Williams who served with Washington for his whole life and perhaps played a large role in Washington granting freedom to his enslaved people after Martha’s death to Alfred Jackson, who was owned by Andrew Jackson and later his son ,until Alfred was freed due to the Civil War. Andrew Jackson considered abolitionists to be “monsters” and what they wrote “unconstitutional and wicked,” yet when Alfred was brought up on murder charges, Andrew Jackson paid for his defense.
Contradictions between how these early presidents felt about the idea of liberty for themselves from Britain, yet couldn’t quite see it extend to people who lived and worked for them shows how complicated and intertwined slavery was in the fabric of American life.
Recommended for all 7th graders and up to read as it is an important part of our history and one we can’t afford to ignore.