The entwined lives of two Revolutionary Era giants and another man who made a less well-known contribution to liberty.
Tadeusz Kosciuszko’s engineering skills proved invaluable to the Continental Army, and he later became internationally famous for his efforts to liberate his native Poland. African-American Agrippa Hull, Kosciuszko’s orderly for seven years, lived a life far less grand than Jefferson and less adventure-packed than Kosciuszko, but he earned an honorable place in his small Berkshire society, becoming known as a model citizen and a kind of village sage, always ready to tell tales of his wartime service. Nash (The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, 2005, etc.) and Hodges (Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver, 2007, etc.) concede at the outset that the thin historical record makes recovering Grippy’s life “unusually challenging,” and it’s a difficulty they never satisfactorily overcome. The authors are too often forced into hazy constructions—“likely,” “must have,” “may have,” “surely,” “perhaps”—that unbalance the narrative and make Hull’s inclusion feel forced, except insofar as he serves to demonstrate Kosciuszko’s utter lack of racial bias. The authors’ more rounded, better-grounded discussion of the Jefferson/Kosciuszko friendship centers on a remarkable footnote to American history: As the executor of the freedom fighter’s will, Jefferson was directed to purchase and educate “from among his own or any others” as many slaves as the monies would allow. How and why the aged Jefferson, author of some of history’s most stirring words about liberty, declined to seize this relatively pain-free chance to free his own slaves—some, we now know, his own children—retreated from the Enlightenment goals of his youth and failed, finally, to honor his friend’s wishes, makes for fascinating, if depressing, reading.
A provocative discussion of an opportunity missed, where inspired moral leadership by one of the greatest of Americans could have made a difference.