J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Jefferson, Kosciuszko, and a Matter of Money

One of Boston 1775’s earliest readers sent me this announcement of a seminar at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania a couple of weeks back. I found both the topic and its treatment interesting:

Thomas Jefferson and Tadeuz Kosciuszko:
Slavery and Freedom, Honor and Betrayal

Gary B. Nash, UCLA, and Graham Russell Hodges, Colgate University

Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s return to the United States in 1797 initiates the narrative we present in this paper. Although crippled by deep wounds, Kosciuszko returned in triumph to reside in Philadelphia as a revolutionary hero. Americans applauded him for his leadership in Poland’s vain uprising from 1792 to 1794. Americans cherished him in the hearts and memories that linked his glory during the American Revolution with their anxieties over the conservative policies of President John Adams. Kosciuszko had more than adulation in mind; he intended to collect some $12,000 plus interest in overdue pay from the American Revolution. The American Congress, aware of his enormous popular appeal, quickly voted to allot the back pay, which, with interest rose to over $15,000.

Kosciuszko remained in Philadelphia, where he befriended Vice President Thomas Jefferson. The pair talked of Poland, France, liberty and slavery long into the night on numerous occasions in the winter of 1797-1798. International anxieties promoted secret actions. Kosciuszko was worried about the newly passed Alien and Sedition Acts and wanted to travel to Paris to gather support for the revitalization of Poland. Jefferson was distraught over the possibility of war between the United States and France and asked Kosciuszko to act as a covert ambassador.

What to do with Kosciuszko’s pension? He gave Jefferson power of attorney; the two men drafted an extraordinary will that gave the American Patriot the power to use the cash to purchase, manumit, educate and give land and cattle to as many enslaved people as could be afforded. Jefferson even had the right to “buy” his own enslaved people and free them. It was a solemn pact between two noble men.

Our narrative then jumps two decades to the time of Kosciuszko’s death in late 1817 and Jefferson’s realization that his promise was now due. We then discuss at length Jefferson’s decision to relinquish executorship of the estate, now worth in excess of $20,000. Nonetheless, we view Jefferson’s eventual decision to shed his oath of honor to Kosciuszko as a betrayal of a promise rich in potential to shift American attitudes about slavery, While Jefferson’s attitudes about black potentials for American citizenship have long been considered, we consider his inaction in this affair of honor deeply troubling for a man deemed America’s greatest symbol of liberty.
Not mentioned in this summary is who took over Kosciuszko’s assets after Jefferson stepped away. How well were the Polish freedom-fighter’s wishes carried out? According to Prof. D. Benjamin Barros’s PropertyProfBlog, the estate was still being litigated in 1834, years after Jefferson had died. (Prof. Barros’s posting also contains the text of Kosciuszko’s will. Thanks to Prof. Mary L. Dudziak’s Legal History Blog and Google for helping me find that.)

I think it’s getting fairly late for American historians to be shocked, shocked at Jefferson’s reluctance to consider African-Americans as equals and work toward their emancipation. Especially at the end of his life, when his debts became more burdensome, Jefferson clearly froze the principles of liberty he wrote about, always putting off emancipation and often arguing against other men’s more immediate plans. Nevertheless, in this case Jefferson’s reluctance might also have been motivated by feeling not up to the administrative tasks. Financial management was not, after all, his strength.

(Today’s illustration, courtesy of the Library of Congress, is a portrait of Jefferson after a painting by Kosciuszko.)

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