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In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives

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Did you know that many of America’s Founding Fathers—who fought for liberty and justice for all—were slave owners? Through the powerful stories of five enslaved people who were “owned” by four of our greatest presidents, this middle-grade nonfiction book helps set the record straight about the role slavery played in the founding of America.

From Billy Lee, valet to George Washington, to Alfred Jackson, personal manservant and lifelong slave of Andrew Jackson, these dramatic narratives explore our country’s great tragedy—that a nation “conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles. These stories help us know the real people who were essential to the birth of this nation but traditionally have been left out of US history books. Their stories are true—and they should be heard.

This thoroughly-researched and documented book by Kenneth C. Davis can be worked into multiple aspects of the Common Core curriculum. It is a great resource for young students of United States history.

Praise for In the Shadow of Liberty:

"This well-researched book offers a chronological history of slavery in America and features five enslaved people and the four U.S. presidents who owned them.... A valuable, broad perspective on slavery." —Booklist, starred review

"Compulsively readable. . . . A must-have selection." —School Library Journal, starred review

ISBN-13: 9781250144119

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Square Fish

Publication Date: 01-08-2019

Pages: 304

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Age Range: 12 - 18 Years

Kenneth C. Davis is the New York Times-bestselling author of America’s Hidden History and Don’t Know Much About® History, which gave rise to the Don’t Know Much About® series of books for adults and children. A frequent guest on national television and radio and a Ted-Ed Educator, Davis enjoys Skype visits with middle- and high-school classrooms to discuss history. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

In the Shadow of Liberty

The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives

By Kenneth C. Davis

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2016 Kenneth C. Davis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-312-4



How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

— Dr. Samuel Johnson, Taxation No Tyranny, 1775

The time is now near at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be, Freemen, or Slaves.

— George Washington, July 2, 1776

Maybe you've heard that George Washington had wooden teeth. That's false — an old legend. Nobody is even sure how it got started.

It is true that Washington lost most of his own teeth, which was hardly unusual in the days before modern dentists and fluoride toothpaste. Over the years, Washington owned several sets of false teeth. But they were not carved from wood. Washington's dentures were actually made from lead, ivory, bone, and animal teeth. Some of them were made with human teeth.

That idea may seem strange enough. But what if some of those human teeth belonged to enslaved people on Washington's plantation?

George Washington had teeth yanked from the mouths of his enslaved people, records show, which may have then been transplanted into Washington's dentures or even his jaw. Washington paid for nine teeth — a total of 122 shillings (about $755 in today's dollars), to be exact. That idea may seem gross today. But back then it was entirely normal for wealthy people to buy teeth from the poor.

George Washington was eleven years old when his father died. The future president inherited one of his father's farms and, with it, ten enslaved people. Later, as an ambitious farmer, George Washington relied completely on enslaved labor to grow his crops, catch fish in the nearby Potomac River, clean his house, make his clothes, and put food on his table. Long before the American Revolution, Washington was eager to add more enslaved workers, especially if he could strike a bargain. And that was what happened in October 1767.

Thirty-five-year-old George Washington was riding through his home county in colonial Virginia when he stopped to take part in an estate sale. One of Washington's neighbors, Colonel John Lee, had died, and his property was being auctioned to pay off the dead man's debts. That estate included all of the enslaved people on the plantation.

The future war hero and president successfully bid on two "mulatto" brothers, named Frank and Will Lee. (Their story is told in Chapter Three.) At the same auction, Washington also bought Adam and Jack, two "Negro boys."

In a time before there were bank checks or credit cards, Washington made this deal with a written note promising to pay eighteen months later. One of Virginia's most prominent men, Washington had only to give his word. That was enough to make these four boys his personal property. Precise about keeping track of matters that related to his plantation, he recorded the details in an account book:

Mulatto Will £61-15
Ditto Frank 50
Negro boy Adam 19
Jack 19

The symbol £ stands for British pounds, the currency used at the time in colonial Virginia. £61-15 meant 61 pounds and 15 shillings.

Washington was able to buy the two "Negro" boys at a much lower price than he paid for Frank and Will Lee because they were destined for Washington's fields, where he grew tobacco, corn, wheat, and other crops. Washington paid more than three times as much for "Mulatto Will" and Frank since he planned to train the two brothers to become personal attendants in his Mount Vernon home.

Why? To modern ears, it sounds strange. But Frank and Will were known at the time as "yellow skinned." Light-skinned enslaved people were prized simply because they looked more white. Many white slaveholders, especially in Virginia's upper-class homes, considered mixed-race people a sort of status symbol, just as some people today think of a flashy car or an expensive new smartphone. Washington and other white people used the word mulatto for such mixed-race people. The word may come from the Spanish word for a mule, an animal that is a cross between a horse and a donkey.

In time, Frank Lee learned to be Washington's head butler. William Lee, about sixteen years old at the time of the auction, became George Washington's valet, or personal servant. Called Will or Billy, he accompanied George Washington nearly every day of his life, tending to all his daily needs.

When George Washington purchased Billy, Frank, and the other two boys in 1767, Virginia was one of thirteen British colonies in America. The push for independence was still nearly ten years away, and George Washington was not thinking about going to war for America's freedom. As a loyal British citizen, Washington had fought for Great Britain's king and become a hero in the French and Indian War in America (part of Europe's later Seven Years' War).

But by 1775, Washington was no longer a happy British subject. Like other Americans, he complained that British taxes on printed paper and other goods were unfair and that other British laws were a form of tyranny. Some Americans even claimed that these taxes and the way the colonists were treated amounted to a form of slavery. Their protests set the American colonies on the path to freedom.

As the angry American objections turned into boycotts of British imports like paper and tea, a famous Englishman named Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote a short pamphlet called Taxation No Tyranny. In it, Dr. Johnson asked, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"

A yelp is the short, sharp cry or bark of a dog. When Dr. Johnson wrote that, the word yelp was sometimes used to describe the barks of bloodhounds that tracked runaway slaves. Dr. Johnson was mocking Americans who wanted it both ways — they complained about taxes they considered unjust, but at the same time, many of them owned or traded slaves. This pamphlet appeared in 1775, a few months before the first shots in the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775.

Dr. Johnson's simple question gets to the heart of a basic and uncomfortable fact: some of the rowdiest cries for America's freedom came from the Founding Fathers, heroes in the American quest for liberty. The list of Founding Fathers who owned enslaved people or profited in some way from slavery is long and filled with both familiar and less famous names.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN owned enslaved people — although he called them servants. He later changed his mind and led one of the first societies aimed at abolishing slavery, in 1790.

PATRICK HENRY, the Virginia politician famed for his words "give me liberty, or give me death," did not think his enslaved servants deserved the same deal. While Patrick Henry thought slavery was "repugnant," he never freed any enslaved people because of the "general inconveniency of living without them."

HENRY LAURENS of South Carolina, the president of the Continental Congress for a term, had become one of America's richest men by shipping as many as 8,000 people from Africa to America.

PHILIP SCHUYLER, a patriot leader and general in the American Revolution, was among New York's wealthiest men. More than twenty-five enslaved people labored in his home, fields, and mills in upstate New York. Yes, there was slavery in New York — and all of the other original thirteen states, North and South.

Of course, the two men most closely connected with America's fight for freedom —

GEORGE WASHINGTON and THOMAS JEFFERSON, chief author of the Declaration of Independence — bought, sold, and owned hundreds of human beings.

JAMES MADISON, the fourth American president, was also a slaveholder. During the summer of 1787, he was one of the men who helped create the United States Constitution, which called for a "more perfect union" to "promote the Blessings of Liberty." Madison's many enslaved people could not enjoy those blessings.

ANDREW JACKSON, the hero of the War of 1812, once said, "The individual who refuses to defend his rights, when called upon by his government, deserves to be a slave." Andrew Jackson had more than one hundred enslaved people on his plantation when he became the seventh president.

Four presidents — Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson. Each man a hero of America's birth and early years. Each fought for freedom. Each is remembered with monuments, memorials, and cities named in his honor. Their stately homes — Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and the Hermitage — are major tourist attractions. And all of them are viewed as great leaders in the quest for liberty, the rule of law, and basic rights.

Along with James Monroe, the fifth president, these men held office for forty of the first forty-eight years of the American presidency. All were slaveholders. Of the first seven U.S. presidents, only John Adams, the second president, and his son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, never owned any slaves. They thought slavery was wrong.

In fact, before Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, ten of the first fifteen American presidents owned enslaved people or grew up in slaveholding households. Until 1850, many of these presidents brought enslaved servants to work at the White House, which was also built and maintained with enslaved labor.

The people who were legal "property" of presidents were among the millions of enslaved people who lived and toiled in America — and who were stuck in the shadows, too. Their stories begin long before America was born, with the arrival of the first Africans brought to American shores in chains.


owned enslaved people or were raised in slaveholding households:

George Washington
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
Andrew Jackson
Martin Van Buren
William Henry Harrison
John Tyler
James K. Polk
Zachary Taylor
Andrew Johnson
Ulysses S. Grant
Woodrow Wilson

Martin Van Buren's father kept six slaves in his Kinderhook, New York, tavern. In the case of Grant, his enslaved people were given to his wife by his father-in-law.

The last president to grow up in a slaveholding household was Woodrow Wilson, who became the twenty-eighth president in 1913. He was born in Virginia in 1856, before the Civil War began.




Columbus makes the first of four voyages to the "New World." Black men arrive with Columbus as sailors, and other Africans come as soldiers with the Spanish explorers who later conquer and colonize the Caribbean islands and the Americas.

AUGUST 20,1619

Twenty Africans are brought to the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia. Sold as indentured servants, these African captives must work for a period of time but are promised their freedom. Although not the first Africans in North America, they are considered the first Africans to settle in the future United States.


The Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (later New York) is founded by approximately 100 settlers; within a year, as many as eleven black African male slaves arrive from Angola.


The first American ship carrying enslaved Africans from the Caribbean island of Barbados, the Desire, sails into Boston Harbor; its cargo also includes salt, cotton, and tobacco.


The Rainbow, the first American ship bound for Africa to trade for captives and return them to America, sails from Boston.


Rhode Island, a New England colony, outlaws slavery. But the slave trade becomes so profitable that slavery is later permitted; Newport, Rhode Island, emerges as a major slave port.


A Virginia law declares that children take on the status of their mothers. Under this law, children born of enslaved mothers are also enslaved, even if their father is white and free.


The British establish legal slavery when they take over the colonies of New York and New Jersey. Maryland passes a similar law, which also states that freeborn women who marry enslaved men are considered enslaved.


Africans are imported into Philadelphia, beginning a thriving slave trade in that city.


In Germantown, near Philadelphia, four Quakers issue what is considered the first American antislavery petition. Based on the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," the petition asks fellow Quakers to give up their slaves.


South Carolina begins to grow rice; a boom in rice farming creates an increased demand for slave labor.


In Boston, Judge Samuel Sewall, one of the judges in the famous Salem witch trials, writes one of the first antislavery tracts in America. In The Selling of Joseph, he writes, "All Men, as they are the Sons of Adam ... have equal Right unto Liberty."

By 1700, there are approximately 28,000 black people in British North America, about 11 percent of the total population, then estimated around 250,000. Enslaved people are being imported into Virginia at the rate of about 1,000 per year.

The African slave trade becomes the world's most profitable business during the eighteenth century.



If slavery be wrong, it is justified by the example of all the world. ... In all ages one half of mankind have been slaves.

— Charles Pinckney, Delegate to the Constitutional Convention, 1787

When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me. ... I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, 1789

The boy sat in a tree, high above the African jungle. While the adults were working in nearby fields, it was his job to call out a warning if dangerous animals or strangers approached. Once, he saw a man sneak into the village and try to take some children. Raising the alarm, the boy yelled at the top of his lungs until the village adults came. They caught the stranger and tied him up. Everyone in this African village was safe for the day.

The next time, the boy — no more than ten years old — was not so lucky.

"One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house," he later recalled, "two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood."

No alarm was raised this time. The strangers gagged both children, tied them up, and bundled them away before anyone knew they were gone.


After a few days' travel, the boy was sold as a servant to another village. Separated from his sister, he didn't know if he would ever see her or the rest of his family again. Although he was treated fairly well by his masters, the small boy had only one wish — to return home.

Then, while tending chickens one day, he killed one by accident. Afraid of being punished, he ran away. When caught, he was sold again. The men who took him carried him farther and farther away from his home. Moving through one strange village after another, the boy no longer understood the languages he heard.

Eventually, the boy was taken to the seacoast and sold yet again. Nearly six months had passed since he had been snatched from his village. After being traded once more, he was brought aboard a large, strange ship riding at anchor.

"I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life," the boy recalled. "With the loathsomeness of the stench ... I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat. ... I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across I think the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely."

It is hard to imagine the terror experienced by a small boy caught like this, sometime in the 1750s. The man who later told that story was Olaudah Equiano, who also went by the name Gustavus Vassa.

But the nightmare was just beginning for him and the other kidnapped Africans forced belowdecks. Descending a ladder, they were assaulted by the stench of human waste and death. Next, they had to survive the trip across the Atlantic, the voyage known as the Middle Passage — the longest of three legs in the so-called Triangle Trade in which the first leg was European goods carried to Africa and exchanged for captives. After bringing slaves to the Americas, the last leg saw the ships return to Europe with raw materials or finished products, such as rum and molasses.


Excerpted from In the Shadow of Liberty by Kenneth C. Davis. Copyright © 2016 Kenneth C. Davis. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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