Very interesting story of three very different participants in the American Revolution: Jefferson, Kosciuszko, and Hull. The book follows the three men faithfully from birth to their death and beyond and at first it reads like a story of parallel lives (with a few intersections). Kosciuszko can be considered a binding figure among the three. He knew Jefferson and Hull very well and he participated in both revolutions mentioned in the subtitle (the one in America and the one in Poland). Jefferson, of course, will always remain a towering figure as the author of the Declaration of Independence and later the third president of the United States. Agrippa Hull, on the other hand, plays the unsatisfying role of someone who could very little to change history.
But there is more. This refers to the last part of the subtitle: "a tragic betrayal of freedom in the new nation." Historians for a long time pointed to the contradictions in the lives and thoughts of the founders of the new nation. Jefferson probably gets the most coverage. Usually because despite his authorship of the famous words "all men are created equal," he didn't seem worthwhile to free his own slaves, even in his will (only a few were given freedom). Further, even when promoting (in principle) liberation of slaves, he didn't see them equal and able to live among the whites. His affair with Sally Hemings adds still another aspect to the same problem. Nash and Hodges explore the same subject through the fascinating story of Kosciuszko's testament. In his last visit to the United States, Kosciuszko asked Jefferson to be the executor of his will. The will designated Kosciuszko's American estate to buy the freedom of American slaves and contribute to their education. In the same manner, parts of his Polish funds were to be used to free his serfs at his estate in Poland.
Although the matter seemed simple, Kosciuszko's American wishes had never been fulfilled. Jefferson, who could have had use the money to buy freedom of his own slaves, struggled with making any decision and finally resigned his obligations to execute the will. Nash and Hodges focus on Jefferson, but don't neglect a broader context of the dispute. After all Jefferson was deeply involved in Virginia's life, society, and politics and the state was not exactly the most friendly to blacks. Unfortunately, Jefferson did not show the independence and courage to stand up to the Virginia's elites.
Kosciuszko wrote his American will in 1798 and he died in 1817, but the dispute over the will ended only in 1852 with the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Here we encounter another name from American history, Chief Justice Roger Taney, who is better known for the 1857 Dred Scott decision upholding slavery in the United States. The court ruled that Kosciuszko's will is invalid and the estate should be distributed amongst the Polish claimants. Although the ruling was technically based on the existence of multiple claims that arose after Kosciuszko's death, it is rather clear that the character of the will, the wish to free and educate slaves, played the key role in the court's decision. As the authors write, "usually a firm advocate of states' rights and a proponent of limited government, Taney veered from his philosophy only in the defense of slavery."
In short, the book is very interesting, well written, and discusses extremely important question of slavery in the early decades of the new American republic. Obviously the book will not satisfy everyone. Many will complain that Kosciuszko and Hull got an easy pass in the description of the disputes over liberty. Both are portrayed as heroes without a blemish, while Jefferson gets most of the criticism. Still, as long as one understands that objection, the book will remain an important read on American and Polish history.