Friday, April 15, 2022

David N. Gellman's "Liberty's Chain"

David N. Gellman is Professor of History at DePauw University. He is the author of Emancipating New York, coauthor of American Odysseys, and coeditor of Jim Crow New York.

Gellman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Liberty's Chain: Slavery, Abolition, and the Jay Family of New York, and reported the following:
Page 99 features a portrait of John Jay by Rembrandt and Raphaelle Peale, c. 1795. The page also summarizes key features of the controversial treaty Jay negotiated with Britain in 1794 to stave off war and to address long-simmering conflict between the US and the former mother country. Opponents viewed the Jay Treaty as a sell-out of US interests which failed to extract respect for US neutrality.

If you can judge a book by its cover, then page 99 fits the bill. The cover of my book strikingly incorporates this very image. And to the degree that John Jay is the Founding Father patriarch whose complicated relationship to slavery sets in motion the national and family drama that the rest of the book narrates, the page works. The text on the rest of the page, however, does not speak directly to the book’s themes. There is no mention of slavery or specific enslaved people on page 99. Nonetheless, what the page does demonstrate is that context is crucial. Among the objections that agitated Jay Treaty opponents was the lack of any compensation for enslaved people who departed with the British at the end of the Revolutionary War, in alleged violation of the very peace treaty that Jay himself negotiated with the British in Paris more than a decade before. Notably, Jay brought enslaved people, Abbe and Benoit to France, and Peet to England to attend to his household during both sets of diplomatic negotiations. The ways in which the lives of the enslaved interweaved with the Jays’ public work, sometimes quite tragically, is a central theme of the book.

Liberty’s Chain is a multi-generational biography. Readers get the opportunity to meet some extraordinary figures—in particular John Jay’s son William Jay and his grandson John Jay II—in the fight for emancipation. The cause these two Jays embraced threatened to tear apart the nation whose founding provided the basis of their famous last name. Their alliances and antagonisms allow me to tell a family story that spans from the colonial period to the early 20th century to think anew about some of the most important events and themes in all of American history.
Learn more about Liberty's Chain at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue