Slavery, Abolition, and the Jay Family of New York
by David N. Gellman
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Pub Date 15 Apr 2022 | Archive Date 01 Jul 2022
Cornell University Press, Three Hills
In Liberty's Chain, David N. Gellman shows how the Jay family, abolitionists and slaveholders alike, embodied the contradictions of the revolutionary age. The Jays of New York were a preeminent founding family. John Jay, diplomat, Supreme Court justice, and coauthor of the Federalist Papers, and his children and grandchildren helped chart the course of the Early American Republic.
Liberty's Chain forges a new path for thinking about slavery and the nation's founding. John Jay 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.
John Jay's personal dealings with African Americans ranged from callousness to caring. Across the generations, even as prominent Jays decried human servitude, enslaved people and formerly enslaved people served in Jay households. Abbe, Clarinda, Caesar Valentine, Zilpah Montgomery, and others lived difficult, often isolated, lives that tested their courage and the Jay family's principles.
The personal and the political intersect in this saga, as Gellman charts American 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.
"Liberty's Chain tells an important story, weaving biography together with social and political history. David N. Gellman charts how four generations of a privileged American political family, from the Revolution to the beginning of the 20th century, were shaped by their slaveholding past and engaged in the abolitionist struggle."-John L. Brooke, author of There is a North
"David N. Gellman brings to vivid life the Jay Family of New York, represented most prominently by John Jay, a founding father and the nation's first Supreme Court Chief Justice. Tracing the lives of his close descendants, Gellman shows their complicated relationship to the abolitionist movement."-Graham Russell Gao Hodges, author of Root and Branch
"In this stunningly original, multi-generational biography of one of America's first families, David N. Gellman covers over one hundred years of the country's history, and offers one daunting message: the country's failure, either through inability or unwillingness, to live up to its principles. Liberty's Chain shows how freedom was shackled since the founding."-Richard Blackett, author of The Captive's Quest for Freedom
"Subtle, smart, and sometimes heart-breaking, Liberty's Chain takes us inside one of the most prominent families in the newly-formed United States. David N. Gellman reveals how three generations of Jays navigated domestic differences, social justice struggles, and national politics in the tumultuous decades between the American Revolution and Reconstruction."-Richard Bell, author of Stolen
"David N. Gellman crafts an epic biography of the Jays. From idealistic notions of freedom and justice to the depravity of human bondage, Liberty's Chain is rife with tension. Gellman brings to light many of the conflicting ideas and practices that characterized a crucial time in our nation's history."-Nicole Saffold Maskiell, author of Bound by Bondage
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