Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Nash and Hodges on Thomas Jefferson and Tadeuz Kosciuszko: Slavery and Freedom, Honor and Betrayal

Al Brophy at Property Prof Blog has come across a "stunning" new paper by Gary Nash, "about Revolutionary war hero Tadeuz Kosciuszko's pension and the will Jefferson wrote for him to use his pension to free enslaved people." Al recommends that "those interested in the intersection of property, wills, and slavery" and perhaps everyone interested in great legal history "simply must read it."
The paper is Thomas Jefferson and Tadeuz Kosciuszko: Slavery and Freedom, Honor and Betrayal, by Gary Nash, UCLA, and Graham Russell Hodges, Colgate University, presented at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania on March 23. Here's the abstract:
Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s return to the United States in 1797 initiates the narrative we present in this paper. Although crippled by deep wounds, Kosciuszko returned in triumph to reside in Philadelphia as a revolutionary hero. Americans applauded him for his leadership in Poland’s vain uprising from 1792-1794. Americans cherished him in the hearts and memories that linked his glory during the American Revolution with their anxieties over the conservative policies of President John Adams. Kosciuszko had more than adulation in mind; he intended to collect some $12,000 plus interest in overdue pay from the American Revolution. The American Congress, aware of his enormous popular appeal, quickly voted to allot the back pay, which, with interest rose to over $15,000.
Kosciuszko remained in Philadelphia, where he befriended Vice President Thomas Jefferson. The pair talked of Poland, France, liberty and slavery long into the night on numerous occasions in the winter of 1797-1798. International anxieties promoted secret actions. Kosciuszko was worried about the newly passed Alien and Sedition Acts and wanted to travel to Paris to gather support for the revitalization of Poland. Jefferson was distraught over the possibility of war between the United States and France and asked Kosciuszko to act as a covert ambassador.
What to do with Kosciuszko’s pension? He gave Jefferson power of attorney; the two men drafted an extraordinary will that gave the American Patriot the power to use the cash to purchase, manumit, educate and give land and cattle to as many enslaved people as could be afforded. Jefferson even had the right to “buy” his own enslaved people and free them. It was a solemn pact between two noble men.
Our narrative then jumps two decades to the time of Kosciuszko’s death in late 1817 and Jefferson’s realization that his promise was now due. We then discuss at length Jefferson’s decision to relinquish executorship of the estate, now worth in excess of $20,000. Nonetheless, we view Jefferson’s eventual decision to shed his oath of honor to Kosciuszko as a betrayal of a promise rich in potential to shift American attitudes about slavery, While Jefferson’s attitudes about black potentials for American citizenship have long been considered, we consider his inaction in this affair of honor deeply troubling for a man deemed America’s greatest symbol of liberty.

For Al's post, which includes the text of Kosciuszko's will, click here.