The untold saga of John Randolph’s 383 slaves, freed in his much-contested will of 1821, finally comes to light.
Few legal cases in American history are as riveting as the controversy surrounding the will of Virginia Senator John Randolph (1773–1833), which—almost inexplicably—freed all 383 of his slaves in one of the largest and most publicized manumissions in American history. So famous is the case that Ta-Nehisi Coates has used it to condemn Randolph’s cousin, Thomas Jefferson, for failing to free his own slaves. With this groundbreaking investigation, historian Gregory May now reveals a more surprising story, showing how madness and scandal shaped John Randolph’s wildly shifting attitudes toward his slaves—and how endemic prejudice in the North ultimately deprived the freedmen of the land Randolph had promised them. Sweeping from the legal spectacle of the contested will through the freedmen’s dramatic flight and horrific reception in Ohio, A Madman’s Will is an extraordinary saga about the alluring promise of freedom and its tragic limitations.
About the Author
Gregory May is the author of Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt. He practiced law in Washington, DC, and New York for thirty years, and now lives in Virginia.
Eye-opening and vigorously researched . . . May cogently reveals how white supremacy was not restricted to the South but permeated the nation, depicting a culture of fear and resentment around free Black settlement . . . Ultimately, May shows how such deprivations have lasting, generational consequences, illuminating inequities that persist to this day. — Ilyon Woo - New York Times Book Review
Lawyer-turned-historian May (Jefferson’s Treasure) offers a fascinating account of Virginia senator John Randolph’s posthumous efforts to free nearly 400 enslaved people and provide for their resettlement . . . May lucidly untangles the legal proceedings and draws vivid character sketches of Randolph and others, while building an irrefutable case that freedom is only the first step to equality. This is history at its finest.
— Publishers Weekly, starred review
Compelling, meticulously documented and beautifully written . . . May’s account shows that 'freedom' of any kind was virtually impossible for Black people in the United States in the early 1800s, no matter how carefully planned. This important book should be of interest to a wide range of readers interested in American history. — Roger Bishop, BookPage, starred review
May does a good job of pointing out the contradictions of the law in both free and slave states. He also paints a vivid portrait of Randolph himself, a man who, while privately opposed to slavery, was not shy about building his fortune on the backs of enslaved people and whose liberation was less than pure . . . A twisty story that illuminates the elaborate legal system built to defend slavery and silence its discontents. — Kirkus Reviews
[A]n invaluable narrative that sheds light on present-day struggles for racial justice and debates about reparations. — John Rowen - Booklist