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A Question of Freedom

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

William G. Thomas III

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November 24, 2020
416 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
28 b/w illus.
ISBN: 9780300234121

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, 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.

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.

“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

The Iron Way

Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America

William G. Thomas

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