A Madman’s Will: John Randolph, Four Hundred Slaves, and the Mirage of Freedom

Liveright: Norton. Apr. 2023. 384p. ISBN 9781324092216. $30. HIST
Historian May (Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt) tackles John Randolph’s legacy: a will that “freed” on paper the 383 people he had enslaved, but, in reality, it changed nothing for them. The book is divided into three sections: Randolph’s life (1773–1833), the court cases, and the outcomes. Randolph wrote three wills: his 1819 one granted freedom to those he had enslaved; his 1821 version provided for the purchase of land elsewhere for their resettlement; and the third, in 1832, said the people he had enslaved could be sold, but he repudiated it on his deathbed, which validated the previous ones. When Randolph died, his brother argued that he had not been of sound mind, so he contested the will and kept the people enslaved. Thirteen years later, the courts granted the 383 enslaved people their freedom, paid them back wages, and provided funding for the purchase of land in Ohio, a free state. But resistance from white racists made it impossible for them to claim or do any of that.
VERDICT Exhaustively researched but written for a general audience, this book urges readers to consider the consequences of enslavement, racism, and the reality that manumission was less about people and more about money and power.
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