The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man's Encounter with Liberty

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The tragic untold story of how a nation struggling for its freedom denied it to one of its own.

In 1775, Thomas Jeremiah was one of fewer than five hundred “Free Negros” in South Carolina and, with an estimated worth of £1,000 (about $200,000 in today’s dollars), possibly the richest person of African descent in British North America. A slaveowner himself, Jeremiah was falsely accused by whites—who resented his success as a Charleston harbor pilot—of sowing insurrection among slaves at the behest of the British.

Chief among the accusers was Henry Laurens, Charleston’s leading patriot, a slaveowner and former slave trader, who would later become the president of the Continental Congress. On the other side was Lord William Campbell, royal governor of the colony, who passionately believed that the accusation was unjust and tried to save Jeremiah’s life but failed. Though a free man, Jeremiah was tried in a slave court and sentenced to death. In August 1775, he was hanged and his body burned.

J. William Harris tells Jeremiah’s story in full for the first time, illuminating the contradiction between a nation that would be born in a struggle for freedom and yet deny it—often violently—to others.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Intrepid historian Harris (Pulitzer finalist for Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation) presents a carefully research account of nebulous historical figure Thomas Jeremiah, who, at the time of his death in 1775, "had risen as high as it was possible for a free black man" in South Carolina, where at least "ninety-nine in a hundred blacks were enslaved." Owner of a fishing company and worth $200,000 in 2009 dollars, Harris was probably the richest black man in North America; he was also a slave-owner. That didn't stop him from becoming a scapegoat, accused by patriot leader Henry Laurens-a wealthy plantation owner with hundreds of slaves-of secretly leading a British-sponsored slave insurrection. Though Governor William Campbell, aggrieved by the unlawfulness of Jeremiah's trial, interceded, it didn't stop those determined to hang Jeremiah. Alongside a rigorous narrative, Harris offers sober but forceful reflections: though he was "free, Christian, and a slave owner," Jeremiah proved an unworthy ally in the eyes of patriots like Laurens, who believed "the America being born...would be a white man's country." Readers will learn much about the darker side of American institutions; students of American history and civil rights will appreciate Harris's impassive approach and thorough standards. 18 b&w photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
In this wholly satisfying work of accessible historical scholarship, Pulitzer Prize finalist Harris (Univ. of New Hampshire; Deep Souths) explores the paradox of Colonial American slave owners fighting for freedom from British rule. His account hinges upon the tragic plight of Thomas Jeremiah. A free black man who made a successful living as a commercial fisherman and riverboat pilot in Colonial Charleston, SC, "Jerry" was publicly hanged in 1775 after being falsely accused of plotting a slave revolt, despite being a slave owner himself. Among the powerful whites convinced of Jeremiah's unproven guilt was civic and political leader Henry Laurens, whose personal letters make up the bulk of the primary-source documentation used here. Laurens's contradictory attitudes toward owning slaves while simultaneously arguing for liberty from Britain represent the broader Colonial attitude at the heart of this study. A third key player is South Carolina's royal governor William Campbell, portrayed as a feckless outsider who never grasped the depths of white Colonists' fears of slave revolt and was tragically unable to effect Jeremiah's release. VERDICT Brimming with illuminating and provocative passages, this concise, highly readable, and thoroughly annotated work will appeal to scholars of Southern slavery and colonialism and is highly recommended to anyone interested in these significant components of American history. [See also "Best Books 2009," p. 48.—Ed.]—Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia
New England Book Festival
Honorable Mention in the Non-Fiction category of the 2009 New England Book Festival sponsored by the Larimar St. Croix Writers Colony, The Hollywood Creative Directory; eDivvy, Shopanista and Westside Websites
Raleigh News & Observer

“Fast-paced, deeply researched. . . . gripping. . . . Harris’ book reminds us that throughout history, liberty for some has rested on the denial of freedom for others.”--John David Smith, Raleigh News & Observer

— John David Smith

Charleston City Paper
“J. William Harris tells a fascinating and finely researched story of principles in conflict and of individuals holding conflicting principles.”—Charleston City Paper
ForeWord Magazine

Winner of the Silver Medal in the History category for the 2009 Book of the Year Award, presented by ForeWord magazine

— Book of the Year Award

The Journal of Law and History Review

"This detailed examination of a little-known episode provides an insightful reflection and commentary on the vexed relationships among liberty, slavery, and the British Empire in the era of the Declaration of Independence."—Richard D. Brown, The Journal of Law and History Review

— Richard D. Brown

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
"A searing portrayal of the central paradox of the American Revolution—the centrality of slavery to the struggle for political liberty. By focusing on a single event, it exposes another paradox as well—that making a story small can also make it bigger."—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University
Orville Vernon Burton
“Beautifully written, this intense study of the conflict between liberty and slavery is told through the lives of colonial Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. In unraveling the mystery of a slave insurrection plot, Harris provides a wonderfully thick description of colonial life in Charles Town, South Carolina, in 1775. Harris weaves together lives of three slaveowners: wealthy merchant Henry Laurens, son of a British duke William Campbell, and harbor pilot, African American Thomas Jeremiah. This model microhistory opens up wonderful new insights about liberty in the context of the American Revolution: what liberty meant and for whom. This is history at its best, history as it should be.”—Orville Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln
William W. Freehling
"This well told tale, brilliantly illustrating the American contradiction, centers on a black slaveholder, dubiously hung for allegedly fomenting a slave revolt at the time of colonial whites' revolt against English 'enslavement.' The book's excruciating dedication reinforces its continued relevance to consistency about human liberty."—William W. Freehling, author of The Road to Disunion
Raleigh News & Observer - John David Smith
“Fast-paced, deeply researched. . . . gripping. . . . Harris’ book reminds us that throughout history, liberty for some has rested on the denial of freedom for others.”—John David Smith, Raleigh News & Observer
ForeWord Magazine - Book of the Year Award
Winner of the Silver Medal in the History category for the 2009 Book of the Year Award, presented by ForeWord magazine
The Journal of Law and History Review - Richard D. Brown
"This detailed examination of a little-known episode provides an insightful reflection and commentary on the vexed relationships among liberty, slavery, and the British Empire in the era of the Declaration of Independence."—Richard D. Brown, The Journal of Law and History Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300171327
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 2/22/2011
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 978,041
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

J. William Harris is professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. He is the author of The Making of the American South, Deep Souths (finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in history), and Plain Folk and Gentry in a Slave Society. He lives in Arlington, MA.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Prologue: Trials 1

Part I Liberty and Slavery

Chapter 1 "Slavery may truly be said to be the peculiar curse of this land" 7

Chapter 2 "Those natural and inherent rights that we all feel, and know, as men" 39

Chapter 3 "God will deliver his own People from Slavery" 63

Part II Liberty's Trials

Chapter 4 "A plan, for instigating the slaves to insurrection" 83

Chapter 5 "The Young King was about to alter the World, & set the Negroes Free" 100

Chapter 6 "Dark, Hellish plots" 119

Chapter 7 "Justice is Satisfied!" 136

Epilogue 152

Afterword: Thomas Jeremiah and the Historians 162

Abbreviations Used in the Notes 167

Notes 169

A Note on Sources 201

Acknowledgments 211

Index 215

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