Friends of Liberty

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

In their book Friends of Liberty, Gary Nash and Graham Russell Gao Hodges use the life experience of three men to illuminate the thorny issues of slavery and race relations in the early years of the American Republic. Thomas Jefferson is familiar to all. Tadeuscz (Thaddeus) Kociuszko is likely to be recognized only by those of Polish descent, although his bravery and devotion to freedom in the American Revolution and the 1794 Polish insurrection deserve to be celebrated. Few have heard of Agrippa Hull, whose life history has only recently been discovered and has proved important enough to be included, along with presidents and millionaires, in the magisterial twenty-four-volume American National Biography (1999). Hull is not really part of a triumvirate; he was Kociuszko’s orderly during the war, and there is no evidence he ever spoke to Jefferson. However, his biography will prove fascinating to readers for what it reveals about African American life in rural Massachusetts during Revolutionary and early America.

Hull, who claimed he was the son of an African prince, was born in Northampton, Massachusetts, March 7, 1759, to free African American parents who were members of the Congregational Church, having been admitted when theologian Jonathan Edwards was minister. Although Massachusetts did not specifically approve recruiting African Americans until April, 1778, Hull volunteered on May 1, 1777, when word spread that the British army, led by General John Burgoyne, was moving south from Quebec. He was assigned as orderly to Colonel John Patterson, leader of the Berkshire County regiment, and later commanding general at Saratoga. Hull was present at Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, a scene he proudly described to the youth of Stockbridge for the rest of his life.

Kociuszko, a younger son of not very prosperous minor Polish nobility who lived off the labor of their serfs, turned to the military for a career. After graduating from the Royal Military Academy, he was sent to France in 1768 to study military engineering. Strongly influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Kociuszko openly criticized serfdom and slavery, and he became a deist. A failed love affair led to his departure from Poland in 1775. The following year Kociuszko decided to join the American Revolution, and in October he received a colonel’s commission as an engineering officer charged with building fortifications. Nash and Hodges would like to date Kociuszko’s friendship with Jefferson to 1776, but the best they can assert is that the two might have met while Kociuszko was in Philadelphia, although there is no record of any encounter until much later.

The authors note that Jefferson, despite being a substantial slave owner, strongly supported antislavery positions in his Declaration of Independence and in his draft constitution for Virginia, which banned further importation of slaves, which he expected would cause the institution to wither. When serving on a committee to revise the laws of Virginia, Jefferson tried and failed to include a provision freeing at age twenty-one all slaves born after passage of the law. As the book progresses, the authors contrast Jefferson’s early statements with his failure to free his own slaves.

During the Saratoga campaign, Hull met Kociuszko, the military engineer responsible for building the defenses at Bemis Hill that stopped Burgoyne. When Patterson and Kociuszko were charged with fortifying and defending West Point, Hull went with them. After serving as Patterson’s orderly for two years, he switched to Kociuszko in May, 1779, for the next fifty months. A favorite Hull anecdote concerned the time at West Point when Kociuszko returned unexpectedly to find Hull dressed in the colonel’s uniform, leading a lively party of enlisted men; to Hull’s relief, Kociuszko was amused and joined the festivities. When Kociuszko went south to serve with American forces there, Hull accompanied him. His experiences as a surgeon’s assistant after the 1781 Battle of Eutaw Springs provided Hull with grisly anecdotes of holding down wounded soldiers while doctors operated without benefit of anesthesia.

Hull was mustered out of service at West Point on July 23, 1783, his treasured honorable discharge signed by George Washington. Hull worked odd jobs and served as occasional butler for Theodore Sedgwick. Lawyer Sedgwick successfully defended an African American woman against attempts by her former owner to claim her services, asserting that she had been freed by the newly enacted Massachusetts constitution, which effectively ended slavery in the state. Hull and his new...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, no. 13 (March 1, 2008): 45.

The Boston Globe, April 8, 2008, p. E4.

Entertainment Weekly, March 28, 2008, p. 69.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 2 (January 15, 2008): 80.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 11 (June 26, 2008): 46-48.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 2 (January 14, 2008): 47.