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Q&A with author Kenneth C. Davis on slavery, America's "great contradiction"

July 30, 2020

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Book cover of “In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives” by Kenneth C. Davis


Editor’s Note: My oldest sister Jennifer kept a copy of Kenneth C. Davis’s book “Don’t Know Much About History” at her side while attending St. John’s Law School. While she was in class, I would sneak into her room and read this eye-opening, serious yet funny book that covered much different ground than my high school textbooks. The worn out 30-year old copy now resides at my younger sister Susannah’s apartment in Brooklyn.

Anniversary edition of Don’t Know Much About History from 2004. The original came out in 1990.

In his new book, “In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives,” Davis dives deeper into the institution of slavery — “the Great Contradiction,” he calls it. The five stories of enslaved people and the four presidents who kept them in bondage were always there, Davis said, they just took a little more time to find. And yet, they explain so much. — Victoria Pasquantonio


Why do you use the term “enslaved person” instead of “slave”?

Words matter, as I explain in a note at the opening of In the Shadow Of Liberty. The simplest explanation is that “enslaved” means that something was done to you, as opposed to being identified as a “slave” — a possession or piece of property. More importantly, when I say Ona Judge was enslaved by the Washingtons, it is very different from saying “Washington’s slave,” which makes that possession seem legitimate. We can never legitimize enslavement of people or make it somehow seem normal or acceptable.

Great men fought for independence and equality, including four presidents seen by many as American heroes. How could such men keep other humans as slaves, denying basic human rights?

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. Courtesy Library of Congress

This is the Great Contradiction I have been writing about for so long. A nation “conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles. Men like Washington and Jefferson recognized the contradiction between their words and ideals and the reality of enslaving people. At best, they thought slavery would eventually end as democracy grew. On that they were tragically wrong and did nothing to make it happen. But other men of the times clearly thought that Africans were less human than whites — and that is at the heart of the racism that grew out of slavery. Many of these slavers believed it was also a good thing because they forced Christianity on the enslaved — they thought they were “saving their souls.”

I honestly think that a great many people still don’t know the true history. I meet adults who are surprised to learn that presidents enslaved people.

Why do so many Americans excuse the fact that U.S. presidents were slave owners — that they owned other human beings? 

I honestly think that a great many people still don’t know the true history. I meet adults who are surprised to learn that presidents enslaved people. Or others minimize the horror of slavery, saying that men like Washington and Jefferson were “humane” masters. But that is a deeply flawed contradiction in terms. You cannot be humane and a slaver.

How did you decide on the five enslaved people to write about in your book? Can you tell us briefly about each one? 

I chose to focus on people enslaved by famous presidents because I thought they so clearly embodied the contradiction I am writing about — the horrific, degrading and dehumanizing existence of slavery in the very shadow of liberty. But their lives were also more fully documented than the vast majority of enslaved people. Because they lived “24/7” with these men, they were mentioned in letters and other documents and, in several cases, eventually told or wrote their own life stories. 

  • Billy Lee was purchased by Washington as a teenager and then spent every day of the rest of Washington’s life beside him, including throughout the revolution. Though he was famous in his day, we do not know when he died or where he was buried.
  • Ona Judge was officially a “dower slave” of the Custis family and was Mrs. Washington’s maid. She escaped from the Washington household in Philadelphia, then the capital, and Washington spent three years trying to track her down and recover her.
  • Issac Jefferson was born into one of the most important enslaved families at Monticello around 1776 — an important year! — and knew Jefferson well. He was also in Yorktown with the British as a child and told of being there while Washington was bombarding the town in the war’s final battle. A witness to history!
  • Paul Jennings was born enslaved at Madison’s plantation and was taken to the White House as a 10-year-old enslaved valet. He set the table on the day the British burned the White House in the War of 1812. And he was with Madison when the Father of the Constitution died. Another eyewitness to major events.
  • Alfred Jackson was born into slavery at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage plantation and remained there until his death in 1901. Think about that — a man enslaved by Andrew Jackson lived into the 20th century.

These are remarkable lives and remarkable stories.

Life of George Washington — The farmer / painted by Stearns; lith. by Régnier, imp. Lemercier, Paris. This lithograph from c. 1853 depicts a romanticized view of Washington’s life at Mt. Vernon, including the depiction of enslaved peoples there. Courtesy Library of Congress

What surprised or affected you the most about one of the enslaved people you write about in your book?

The Ona Judge story is most resonant for me, as it is for many people — she risked everything for the same freedom Washington was fighting for. And she challenged the most powerful man in America to do it. I also find her story, when set against Billy Lee’s, so interesting because they made such different choices.

How does learning about the lives of one (or two) of the enslaved people in your book and their relationship to their masters, four American presidents, teach us about the institution of slavery? 

These lives get at the incredible complexity of slavery and its relationship to political and financial power in America. These presidents certainly expressed some sense of “kinship” with these enslaved servants. And at least four of the five people I write about who had been enslaved professed admiration and affection for the men who held the power of life and death over them. Were they just playing it safe? Saying what they had to say? To criticize a Washington, Jefferson or Jackson as a freedman would have carried enormous risks. We don’t really know, but it gets at the tangled human dimension of slavery that history books and textbooks leave out.

These lives get at the incredible complexity of slavery and its relationship to political and financial power in America.

What does the media (books, movies and the news) get wrong when it comes to discussing slavery? How should slavery and enslaved people be discussed that would help us better understand this part of our culture and history?

The greatest misconception is two-fold: slavery only existed in part of the U.S. and was a small part of the American drama. Slavery was legal in all 13 states and was the key to financial and political power in the young republic. The nation was largely built upon enslaved labor and the profits from slavery made great fortunes. The political power conveyed to the slaveholding states through the Constitution’s “three-fifths Compromise” led to the Civil War and lasted long afterwards. Finally, I would add the misconception that it ended in 1865. The damaging waves of slavery — and in its wake Jim Crow — keep washing over the country in the separate and unequal countries that slavery created.

Give us some perspective: When Michelle Obama said slaves built the house she lived in, would this have caused pubic outrage 20 to 30 years ago or would the words just not have been uttered? How have things gotten better? Have some things gotten worse?

The very fact that an African American First Lady was in the White House is still an extraordinary landmark. But yes, years ago her remarks would have caused even more outrage. Remember that Theodore Roosevelt lost the votes of the Southern states after inviting Booker T. Washington to dine in the White House. The fact that her remarks caused any upset at all is a sign that we still have far to go. We have made some extraordinary achievements, including President Obama’s election and the opening of the Museum of African American History and Culture. But there is too much evidence every day that we have miles to go on these questions of race in American society and politics. And we still do a terrible job of teaching about slavery.

Kenneth C. Davis is the New York Times–bestselling author of Don’t Know Much About® History, which gave rise to the “Don’t Know Much About®” series of books, and America’s Hidden History. In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents and Five Black Lives earned him a Notable Book of the American Library Association in 2017. His most recent book, More Deadly Than War about the 1918 Spanish flu was also named a Notable Trade Book for Young People by the Children’s Book Council and National Council for the Social Studies. His forthcoming book, Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy, will be published on October 6,2020. He lives in New York City and can be found on Twitter @kennethcdavis and at his website,


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