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. Piecing together evidence once dismissed in court and buried in the archives, William Thomas tells an intricate and intensely human story of enslaved families, their lawyers, and the slaveholders, A Question of Freedom asks us to reckon with the moral problem of slavery and its legacies in the present day.
The historian William G. Thomas III explains in A Question of Freedom the Dred Scott decision 'denied Black citizenship and gave slaveholders blanket authorization to take slaves into any state or territory in the United States.' It rejected the very idea that Scott was a legal person under the Constitution with standing to sue in the first place ... It’s a rich, roiling history that Thomas recounts with eloquence and skill, giving as much attention as he can to the specifics of each case while keeping an eye trained on the bigger context. 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.' ... Throughout A Question of Freedom, Thomas is candid about his personal connection to this history. The last Queens enslaved in Maryland were held by the Ducketts, a branch of his family.
Although [Thomas's] focus is comparatively narrow—the western shore of Maryland and Prince George’s County in particular (a part of Maryland that abuts Washington, D.C.)—he reveals a remarkable struggle for freedom, one buoyed at first by new aspirations in the broader culture and later doomed by rekindled fears ... Mr. Thomas’s valuable and provocative book follows a constellation of freedom suits over nearly 70 years ... Mr. Thomas, a history professor at the University of Nebraska, brings a clear and sensitive eye to the tangled relationship of black and white Americans in the early 19th century.
In 1857, the chief justice of the United States, Roger Brooke Taney, declared in his infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford opinion that since the nation’s founding, African Americans — whether free or enslaved — 'had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.' ... In his gripping new book A Question of Freedom [...] historian William G. Thomas III provides a profound and prodigiously researched rebuttal to Taney’s lie ... Thomas shows how families bolstered their claims of freedom through documents, oral histories and accounts of their free ancestors’ arrival in America.Thomas paints rich multigenerational portraits of families who used their histories in the legal process and won freedom in suit after suit.