A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation's Founding to the Civil War (Paperback)

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Winner of the Mark Lynton Prize in History—the story of the longest and most complex legal challenge to slavery in American history

"A rich, roiling history that Thomas recounts with eloquence and skill. . . . 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.'"—Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

"Gripping. . . . Profound and prodigiously researched."—Alison L. LaCroix, Washington Post

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.

About the Author


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


Product Details
ISBN: 9780300261509
ISBN-10: 0300261500
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication Date: January 11th, 2022
Pages: 432
Language: English

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