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

Book review by
Kyle Jackson, Common Sense Media
In The Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives Book Poster Image
Incredible history of five slaves of the Founding Fathers.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Incredibly expansive introduction to the history of slavery in the United States, including a series of detailed and informative timelines between chapters. 

Positive Messages

Author Kenneth C. Davis consciously emphasizes the agency and individuality of the enslaved people whose stories he brings to life, stressing their specialized skills and contributions. While the topic of slavery can be bleak, this book highlights the perseverance of those striving to escape bondage, as well as the moral quandaries faced by those who chose to maintain the status quo. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Traditional stories about the supposedly honorable and enlightened Founding Fathers have been called into question by recent generations of historians, and any reader of this book will walk away with a more nuanced -- and probably less favorable -- view of America's national heroes. On the other hand, the astounding loyalty and resilience of the men and women compelled to serve these iconic figures is inspiring and heartbreaking.

Violence

There are several frank descriptions of incidences of brutal treatment of slaves, the horrors of the Middle Passage (by which Africans were brought on ships to America to be sold as slaves), and the harsh punishments faced by slaves who dared run away.

Sex
Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that In the Shadow of Liberty, by Kenneth C. Davis (Don't Know Much about History), is a heartrending history book for teens about the lives of five enslaved people who served four of the most celebrated presidents in early U.S. history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. It's a powerful introduction to American slavery, tracing the institution's grim history through the stories of five exceptional individuals who witnessed many pivotal moments in the founding of the republic. The writing is geared toward middle and high school students, but the research is as thorough and well-cited as a college-level text. 

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What's the story?

Best-selling popular history author Kenneth C. Davis' IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY traces the stories five enslaved people who served four of the most celebrated presidents of the early United States. After an excellent overview of the topic of American slavery, Davis begins with the story of George Washington's valet Billy Lee, who was wih the general throughout his entire life and witnessed much of the American Revolution up close. The book then proceeds to the life of Ona Judge, a woman who successfully fled Washington's estate and evaded his attempts to recapture her. Next is Isaac Granger, trusted servant of Thomas Jefferson, a man whose complicated views on slavery have been the subject of much scrutiny and debate. Paul Jennings, who "was always with Mr. [James] Madison till he died, and shaved him every other day for sixteen years," survived the turmoil of the War of 1812, fleeing the capitol building moments before it was burnt to the ground by the invading British army. The final chapter profiles Alfred Jackson, one of many persons held as property by beloved war hero Andrew Jackson for most of his life. All of these individuals eventually gained their freedom, either through manumission (being freed), purchasing their liberty, or escaping from bondage. 

Is it any good?

Author Davis' writing is succinct but emotive as he breathes life into a bygone era and offers a breathtaking amount of contextual information in the brief biographies he presents. The timelines included throughout the book are rich in detail and cover the major moments in the history of American slavery, making In The Shadow of Liberty an ideal starting point for any middle or high school student interested in learning more about the founding of the United States and role played by people of African descent.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the history of slavery laid out in In the Shadow of Liberty. What do you think about the contradiction of a government founded in the name of equality that still practiced and profited from slavery? How and why did the North American colonists fail to see or choose to ignore the hypocrisy?

  • The stories in In the Shadow of Liberty reveal how connected black and white lives were in early America, despite the very real divisions enforced by laws and customs. How did interactions between people of different ethnicities, even in the context of slavery, affect the development of American identity and culture?

  • What can students and scholars of history do to restore the voices of those whose stories have been ignored or marginalized? Why is it important to do so?

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