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.
Thomas, a history professor at the University of Nebraska, debuts with a revelatory and fluidly written chronicle of attempts by enslaved families in Prince George’s County, Md., to win their freedom through the courts ... Moving profiles of Edward Queen, one of the original litigants, and Thomas Butler, whose family won their freedom suit against Supreme Court justice Gabriel Duvall, reclaim the humanity of slavery’s victims, and Thomas’s discovery that his own ancestors held Queen’s relatives in bondage adds emotional and historical nuance. The result is an essential account of an overlooked chapter in the history of American slavery.