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

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A tragic ending to a story may be all the more reason to read it, especially when that story is true. Almost four hundred enslaved Virginians should have been freed upon the death of John Randolph in 1833. However, contestants to the will kept the enslaved in limbo for almost thirteen years. Even after the inheritance battle, those who had been freed were unable to find a refuge where they could freely live.

The majority of the book details the legal wranglings over the will. Not only were societal norms in favor of slavery, but the laws themselves erected almost impassible barriers, even when manumission was legal. The cast of characters is long, and hard to keep straight (the Appendix of People and Places helps), but May is even-handed in his treatment of each and careful in his theorizing, allowing you to draw your own conclusions. This leads to a powerful denouement, where even the eventual freedom does not lead to respite. It is a dense and convoluted tale, but author Gregory May takes pains to help you understand it. Ultimately, although the arguments seem complex, it is the complicity of the majority that upholds such a miscarriage of justice.

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Star Count 4.5/5
Format Hard
Page Count 384 pages
Publisher WW Norton
Publish Date 11-Apr-2023
ISBN 9781324092216
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Issue April 2023
Category History