Friends of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and Agrippa Hull: A Tale of Three Patriots, Two Revolutions, and a Tragic Betrayal of Freedom in a New Nation. By Gary B. Nash and Graham Russell Gao Hodges. New York: Basic Books, 2008. 328 pp.
Hodges and Nash have written a highly readable and thoroughly researched popular history that places the struggle over the institution of slavery at the center of the Revolutionary Era. Weaving together the lives of three men, Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish officer who served in the Continental Army, and Agrippa Hull, a free black man from Massachusetts who also fought in the Revolutionary War, the authors set the stage for a contemplation of the meaning of freedom in the new nation.
At first glance, this trio of characters seems not to work well together. Their stories do not have equal time or consideration. Jefferson's surviving voluminous correspondence provides plenty of material for the authors to examine his actions and state of mind. But Kosciuszko did not keep records so diligently, and Hull wrote little. Indeed Hull is not present for almost a third of the book. Additionally, the uneven nature of their relationships seems a weakness. Two of them, Jefferson and Hull, may not have ever spoken to each other. Jefferson and Kosciuszko became friends of long standing but rarely met. Hull worked for Kosciuszko during the war, during which time they built a relationship of mutual respect, but had only one subsequent meeting.
However, the other two men do more than triangulate Jefferson's character. They hold the moral center of the book. Hull, of course, lived with racism and struggled to gain modest prosperity. If anyone understood the opportunities and limits of freedom, he did. Kosciuszko came to his Revolutionary War service already deeply influenced by enlightenment thinkers and was further radicalized by supervising and observing Hull and other black soldiers. After his return to Poland, Kosciuszko was actively engaged in fighting for Polish independence and agitating for the liberation of serfs. He lobbied Jefferson to work for abolition also. Most importantly, Kosciuszko trusted Jefferson to be executor of his will and instructed Jefferson to use Kosciuszko's significant American assets to purchase freedom for as many slaves as possible. That Jefferson did not do so, Nash and Hodges argue, constitutes his greatest moral failure.