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A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation's Founding to the Civil War

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Winner of the Mark Lynton Prize in History—the story of the longest and most complex legal challenge to slavery in American history

"A rich, roiling history that Thomas recounts with eloquence and skill. . . . The very existence of freedom suits assumed that slavery could only be circumscribed and local; what Thomas shows in his illuminating book is how this view was eventually turned upside down in decisions like Dred Scott. 'Freedom was local,' Thomas writes. 'Slavery was national.'"—Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

"Gripping. . . . Profound and prodigiously researched."—Alison L. LaCroix, Washington Post

For over seventy years and five generations, the enslaved families of Prince George’s County, Maryland, filed hundreds of suits for their freedom against a powerful circle of slaveholders, taking their cause all the way to the Supreme Court. Between 1787 and 1861, these lawsuits challenged the legitimacy of slavery in American law and put slavery on trial in the nation’s capital.

Piecing together evidence once dismissed in court and buried in the archives, William Thomas tells an intricate and intensely human story of the enslaved families (the Butlers, Queens, Mahoneys, and others), their lawyers (among them a young Francis Scott Key), and the slaveholders who fought to defend slavery, beginning with the Jesuit priests who held some of the largest plantations in the nation and founded a college at Georgetown. A Question of Freedom asks us to reckon with the moral problem of slavery and its legacies in the present day.

ISBN-13: 9780300234121

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Yale University Press

Publication Date: 11-24-2020

Pages: 432

Product Dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.30(d)

William G. Thomas III is the John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Nebraska. He is co-founder and was director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Georgetown, April 2017 1

Part I The Planting

1 A Meeting at White Marsh, 1789 15

Attempting to Poison a Certain Richard Duckett the Younger 43

2 Ought to Be Free 47

The Nine Ninety-Nine 81

3 Charles Mahoney Is a Free Man 86

Our Ancestors Are Calling Our Names 118

4 A Public Scandal 122

ABD 151

Part II The Inheritance

5 Queen v. Hepburn-A Question of Freedom 157

Dead but Not Forgotten 191

6 The Turning 195

Juneteenth 233

7 Mob Law 238

Return to Pleasant Prospect 266

8 The Sale 270

Duckettsville 298

9 The Last Freedom Trial 302

Appendix 323

Notes 327

Acknowledgments 393

Index 397