Friends of Liberty: A Tale of Three Patriots, Two Revolutions,
and a Tragic Betrayal of Freedom in the New Nation
By Gary B. Nash & Graham Russell Gao Hodges
Basic Books, 328 pp., illustrated, $26
Six months after Thomas Jefferson died - on that iconic date of July 4, 1826 - there was an auction at his beloved Monticello. Along with horses and cattle, household furniture, even a marble bust of him, there were 130 slaves to be sold off, advertised as "the most valuable for their number ever offered at one time in the state of Virginia."
It stands as a sad ending to the life of the great champion of liberty, freedom, and equality whose conflicted position on slavery has been well documented.
But there is an even sadder story behind that tragic event that is detailed by historians Gary B. Nash and Graham Russell Gao Hodges in "Friends of Liberty," their absorbing account of the intertwined lives of Jefferson, the Polish patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and Agrippa Hull, a free black who served as Kosciuszko's orderly during the American Revolution and lived in Stockbridge, Mass.
There is in Kosciuszko a lost-cause heroism and in Hull an antic humor, but the underlying story of the three "friends of liberty" is the "betrayal of freedom" that culminated in the Monticello slave auction.
It was during the Revolution that Kosciuszko not only developed a close personal relationship with Hull but, as the authors note, "his admiration for black Americans grew as the war wore on, and so did his revulsion at chattel slavery." Of particular importance was their strength and skill in building fortifications, bridges, and roadways at West Point.
Jefferson and Kosciuszko may have met during the Revolution - although not for certain until the fall of 1797, after Kosciuszko returned to the United States a man without a country, following the defeat of the Polish insurrection he had led against Russia.
By then, the authors write, Jefferson's "fertile mind had been churning on slavery and the character of African Americans" and "in the company of Kosciuszko" was "primed for a spirited discussion about liberty and slavery."
The culmination of that relationship was Kosciuszko's will, written in April 1798 before he returned to Europe, in which he stated that Jefferson "should bye out of my money" - back pay still due him from his service during the Revolution - "So many Negroes and free them, that the restante [remaining] sums should be Sufficient to give them education and provide for ther maintenance."
Kosciuszko died in October 1817, but Jefferson was torn about fulfilling the terms of the will. His position, the authors write, was that slaves, whether his own or those of other planters, should "be prepared for freedom before emancipation." Not only did that reverse Kosciuszko's directive, but such schools did not exist.
The matter was finally resolved when the US Supreme Court ruled in 1852, in a case brought by claimants for Kosciuszko's estate, that the will was void because of "the uncertainty of its dispositions and the objects of its bounty," and his estate was awarded to two nieces living in Poland.
Hull, the third "friend of liberty," apparently never met Jefferson, and had returned to Stockbridge at the war's end after serving as Kosciuszko's orderly for nearly five years. But, the authors argue, he had influenced Kosciuszko in his thinking about slavery, which in turn led to his involvement with Jefferson.
The "defining moment" of Hull's relationship with Kosciuszko brings a note of levity to an otherwise bleak account that ends on a note of betrayal. One evening while Kosciuszko was expected to be away from West Point, Hull indulged in a "king-for-a-day" revel, a tradition among black New Englanders, inviting other black soldiers to a feast over which he presided, dressed in one of Kosciuszko's Polish uniforms.
Kosciuszko returned unexpectedly, but rather than punishing Hull, "continued the role reversal game." The incident, the authors write, showed that Kosciuszko "was at ease with the free black men with whom he mingled." As for Hull, for the rest of his life he "delighted in telling the story, and his listeners delighted in hearing it."
Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.