Never Caught – The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge

never-caught-9781501126390_lg   With every day exposing another revelation about someone famous – now infamous – Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s National Book Award Finalist, Never Caught, adds to the list of politicians who are not who they seem.  If you think of George Washington as the stalwart leader of the Revolutionary troops, the fatherly first President, or even the boy who chopped down the cherry tree and would not lie about it, Dunbar’s story of Ona Judge may change your impression.

Modern accounts of history sometimes conveniently forget the founding fathers used slaves to run their households and, in the case of Southern aristocrats, kept thousands to run their plantations and farms.  Ona Judge was born into slavery and came to Mount Vernon with Martha Custis as part of her dowry.  When the Washingtons moved to the Philadelphia White House, she was among the trusted household slaves who came with them as Martha’s personal dresser and attendant.  Ever the politician, Washington maneuvered around Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual abolition law, sending his slaves back from Philadelphia to Virginia every six months to prevent them from claiming freedom.  Pennsylvania law required the emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than six months.

On May 21, 1796, as George and Martha Washington ate their supper in the Philadelphia Executive Mansion, their twenty-two year old house slave, Ona Judge, walked out of the house and into freedom. With the help of the free black community in Philadelphia, Judge made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where the free black community and white supporters provided refuge.

Dunbar’s history exposes the Washingtons as slave holders who adamantly believed in keeping their human property, and she notes their shock at the “ingratitude” of Judge; the President wrote she had fled “without any provocation.” Later, Judge recounted she had “never received the least moral or mental instruction” while with the Washingtons, and had been treated as property, just like all her family.  Despite being viewed as a privileged household slave by the Washingtons,  they determined how and where she lived.  Martha Washington’s gift of the slave to her newly wed granddaughter triggered Judge’s escape.

When Judge runs away before the group returns to Virginia at the the end of the Presidency, Washington uses his political influence and substantial power, sometimes illegally, to find her and bring her back.  Washington was willing to abuse his office and power to hunt another human being, while Martha Washington’s outrage fueled her husband’s pursuit of Judge.

Amazingly, Judge is able to negotiate with one of Washington’s abolitionist friends when she is first found in New Hampshire, but ultimately she must run again, always living in fear of being found. Judge remained firm that she would “‘rather suffer death’ than return to slavery” as Dunbar exposes the emotional toll of separation from family and the physical and economic realities of day-to-day living for black women.  Her life of freedom costs her security and left her in poverty, but her progeny are finally rewarded with a better life.

As a fugitive, Dunbar remained hidden throughout her life, and she protected the people who gave her refuge. Dunbar’s account uses Judge’s 1845 interview in the Granite Freeman and 1847 interview in the Liberator, the only recorded interviews Judge gave about her life, after many who had helped her had died.  Well-referenced manuscripts, letters, journals and approximately 130 secondary sources add to her documentation as she convincingly immerses the reader in the life of Ona Judge and changes the perception of George Washington.

 

 

Hamilton – The Script

17-lin-manuel-miranda.w529.h529 Since my chance of seeing the Tony award winning play Hamilton on Broadway with the original cast are impossible (key players leave the cast in July), Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s book – Hamilton: The Revolution was the next best option.  Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton uses hip-hop and rap to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton, the poor man who fought the British, defended the Constitution, and helped to found the United States. Full of page-sized pictures from the play, the book itself is large-sized, with the actual script, margin notes, and background information.

As I flipped through the pictures and then slowed down to read, Shakespeare came to mind.  Charles Lamb wrote Tales from Shakespeare, with the Bard’s words “translated” to make the stories of Shakespeare’s plays more understandable to young readers (and anyone else needing notes); Miranda and McCarter did the same with their book Hamilton.  The script includes margin notes deciphering the action and sometimes explaining the inspiration.  The words follow the hip-hop beat, reading like poetry most of the time, creating its own silent music.9781455539741_p0_v1_s192x300

With chapters interspersed throughout the script, the authors follow the play’s progress as it developed in the writer’s mind, including tryouts for some of the scenes and songs over the six years before playing Broadway.   Miranda’s inspiration for lyrics easily adds to the drama, and the tour behind the scenes on costuming and tryouts provides better understanding of the the play’s construction.  At times, the prose gets heavy with modern political asides, teaching moral lessons along with the history lessons.

More than once I found myself researching Hamilton’s role in the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, in the creation of the banking system,  in his relationship to George Washington. His famous duel with Vice President Aaron Burr is well-known, but I did not recall studying the Reynolds Pamphlet when I was in school, or the scandal of his three year affair. Miranda shows it to be the beginning of Hamilton’s decline.  Amazing how history repeats itself – affairs and scandals and payoffs.

Miranda admits to poetic license in creating a few characters who did not really exist, and in romanticizing some aspects of Hamilton’s life, but for the most part, he got it as right as the history books (which are constantly being rewritten) allow.

I still want to see the play someday – must be amazing to hear those words and feel the beat of history.

 

The Queen’s Lover

Not everyone can meet the high expectations Hilary Mantel raised for historical novels. In Francine du Plessix Gray’s fictionalized history of Marie Antoinette’s Swedish lover, Count Axel von Fersen – The Queen’s Lover – the history outshines the fiction.

Although historians cannot agree on the extent of intimacy in the relationship between the Swedish aristocrat and the famous French Queen, the rumors could provide the basis for the possibilities that Gray creates. The Count is historically famous for fighting in the American Revolution and for his escape plan for the imprisoned French royals, which fails. Gray uses letters written by the Count and by Marie Antoinette that have been recently recovered, and the letters are sometimes more compelling than the fictional prose. Despite the drama of the beheading, Marie Antoinette’s final letter is the focal point.

As an education into the details of the French Revolution and the backstory of royal intrigues, the book offers a tedious accounting, and the connection between the imagined and the real never quite connected for me. I think I’ve been spoiled by Hilary Mantel.

Review of Mantel’s: Bring Up the Bodies

Instruments of Darkness – A Mystery by Imogen Robertson

The first thousand words of this historical mystery won a prize for its author in London, but I almost stopped reading after the first chapter.  Imogen Robertson redeemed herself  as she continued with a tale of murders and forensic experts in Instruments of Darkness.

Like any good murder mystery, the dead body begins the action; the first is discovered in the woods of Sussex. Robinson infuses a Gothic mood and English society manners into this late eighteenth century melodrama, with the American Revolution and the week-long mob scene in London, called the Gordon Riots, pitting Catholics against Protestants, adding to the excitement.

The key investigators are the unlikely team of Gabriel Crowther, an anatomist (not quite forensic scientist, but close enough) with a hidden past, and Harriet Westerman, feisty and intelligent wife of a Naval officer gone off to fight the war in the colonies.  The two complement each other, straying from British formality only when examining the dead bodies for clues. The action is all very civilized as they investigate key suspects – one, the gloomy and rich Hugh Thornleigh, brutally scarred by the war, who lives on the neighboring estate, and may be related to more than one dead body.

Robertson confounds the plot by flipping back and forth to another murder scene – this time in a small music shop in London; Alexander Adams, the shop owner, is fatally stabbed in front of his two young children.   A family crested ring immediately links the two murders.

The action starts slowly, with Robertson carefully embellishing each character.   As she seems to have so much to tell about each character, she struggles to reveal all the information at once.  Everyone has a past that catches up to the action eventually, and, at times, Robertson allows the historical context to take over the plot.  The think-out-loud conversations of her characters can be more confusing than helpful, as she draws your attention back and forth, and away – red herrings?  She throws in another murdered body now and then to keep your attention.

If you can be patient with the British understatement, and weave through the convolutions, you’ll get to an Agatha Christie type explanation and a surprise who-done-it ending.  The book is more about the relationships and the problem-solving, than it is about the murders.

I did enjoy the repartee between Harriet Westerman, a woman before her time, and Gabriel, a steady and equal partner – at a time in history when it was more likely to be two men on the case.  Robinson has established a new forensic team of sleuths; she is already planning the next adventure of Westerman and Crowther.

The Rebellion of Jane Clarke

Not such a stretch today for a young woman to forego her parent’s plans for her future and decide for herself.    But not so common in colonial Massachusetts when your father is a Tory sympathizer and you’re not so sure about your own feelings.

Sally Gunning’s The Rebellion of Jane Clarke combines historical narrative with the impressions of a young woman who has dared defy her father, and refused to marry the enigmatic Phinnie Paine, her father’s choice for her – because she’s not sure she knows either her father or her prospective mate. As punishment, her father sends her from her home in Santucket to Boston, where she finds herself in the middle of pre-Revolution chaos.

 

John Adams

 

Follow Jane’s self- discovery as she grows from a confused observer and sometimes reluctant participant to a woman with convictions who discovers, almost too late, that her trust has been betrayed. Gunning cleverly uses language and events to bring her characters to life, and if you are a fan of John Adams, you’ll appreciate his minor role.

The romantic subplot only adds to the drama.

The Rebellion of Jane Clarke is an easy read, full of  historical references, with an ending that will make you smile.