A Question of Freedom Summary and Reviews

A Question of Freedom

The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation's Founding to the Civil War

by William G. Thomas III

A Question of Freedom by William G. Thomas III X
A Question of Freedom by William G. Thomas III
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Book Summary

The story of the longest and most complex legal challenge to slavery in American history.

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. Between 1787 and 1861, these lawsuits challenged the legitimacy of slavery in American law and put slavery on trial in the nation's capital.

Piecing together evidence once dismissed in court and buried in the archives, William Thomas tells an intricate and intensely human story of the enslaved families (the Butlers, Queens, Mahoneys, and others), their lawyers (among them a young Francis Scott Key), and the slaveholders who fought to defend slavery, beginning with the Jesuit priests who held some of the largest plantations in the nation and founded a college at Georgetown. A Question of Freedom asks us to reckon with the moral problem of slavery and its legacies in the present day.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"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..an essential account of an overlooked chapter in the history of American slavery." - Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Thomas reveals the deep-seated contradictions inherent in the slaveholding culture...A fresh, disquieting look into America's traumatic past." - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"This detailed and meticulously-researched account is an important contribution to the history of American slavery. Recommended primarily for readers interested in the legal history of slavery and in stories of enslaved people who directly challenged the legality of slavery in the United States." - Library Journal

"Here is a strikingly original, eloquent, and humane book on an inhumane institution. The story restores the names and histories of people who fought for freedom for generations." - Edward Ayers, author of The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America

"In A Question of Freedom, historian William Thomas brings to light the truly remarkable and largely forgotten efforts of people held in bondage to sue for their freedom in the courts of the early United States. A genuine contribution to the social, legal, and political history of American slavery, this is a book of great depth and insight." - Adam Rothman, historian and curator of the Georgetown Slavery Archive

"With its vivid narration, revelatory research, careful contextualization, and bracing honesty, A Question of Freedom demonstrates that freedom suits were not isolated episodes but instead a major form of slave resistance, with far-reaching and ongoing effects in the long freedom struggle. This book is essential reading for understanding the history of slavery and the modern debate over reparations." - Elizabeth R. Varon, author of Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War

"William Thomas has produced an important and astonishing chronicle of the legal battles waged by enslaved people for their own freedom. Braiding white-knuckle courtroom drama together with a searing exploration of his own family history, he redefines slavery's place in early American law—not an inherent feature, but a dubious institution whose contradictions were exploited by the enslaved to protect themselves and their families." - Yoni Appelbaum, Senior Editor, The Atlantic

This information about A Question of Freedom was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

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Author Information

William G. Thomas III

William G. Thomas III is the John and Catherine Angle Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Nebraska. He was co-founder and director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia.

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