Liberty’s Chain forges a new path for thinking about slavery and the nation’s founding. John Jay, diplomat, Supreme Court justice, and Federalist, embodies the contradictions of the revolutionary age. A slaveholder whose personal dealings with the enslaved ranged from caring to callousness, he also served as the inaugural president of a pioneering antislavery society. His descendants, especially his son William Jay and his grandson John Jay II, embraced radical abolitionism in the nineteenth century, the cause most likely to rend the nation. The scorn of their elite peers—and racist mobs–did not deter their commitment to end southern slavery and to combat northern injustice. Collaboration and clashes with abolitionist colleagues, as well as with leading politicians, energized the Jays. Meanwhile, across the generations, enslaved people and formerly enslaved people served in Jay households. Abbe, Clarinda, Caesar Valentine, Zilpah Montgomery, and others ensured that ignoring the living legacy of northern slavery was never an option. These men and women lived difficult, often isolated lives, that tested the Jay family’s principles. The personal and the political fuel a family saga of values transmitted and transformed from the colonial and revolutionary eras to the Civil War, Reconstruction and beyond. The Jays, as well as those who served them, demonstrated the elusiveness and the vitality of liberty’s legacy. This remarkable family story forces us to grapple with what we mean by patriotism, conservatism, and radicalism. Their story speaks directly to our own divided times.
David N. Gellman is Professor of History at DePauw University, where he has taught since 1999. His book Liberty’s Chain: Slavery, Abolition, and the Jay Family of New York was published in Spring 2022 by Three Hills, an imprint of Cornell University Press. Among his other publications are Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom, 1777-1827 and Jim Crow New York: A Documentary History of Race and Citizenship, 1777-1877. Both were selected as Choice Outstanding Academic Titles. He is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of the Early Republic and has held research fellowships at the Huntington Library, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. In addition, he has published two essays on rock legend Bruce Springsteen and is co-host of a long-running music radio show on WGRE, 91.5 FM, in Greencastle, Indiana.