“What to the slave is the Fourth of July?,” asked Frederick Douglass in 1852. In Enjoy the Same Liberty, Edward Countryman addresses Douglass’s question. He shows how the American Revolution began the world-wide destruction of slavery, how black Americans who seized their chances for freedom during the Revolution changed both themselves and their epoch, and how their heirs, including Douglass, pondered what the Revolution meant for them. Thanks in good part to black people, what began as colonial tax protests became something of far greater significance. But this book also shows how that same Revolution led to an immensely powerful slave society in the South, so strong that destroying it required the cataclysm of the Civil War.
Bancroft Prize-winning Countryman (A People in Revolution) begins with the bleak premise that everywhere explorers and colonizers went, with them they brought slavery "the great unifying colonial institution." Despite a dearth of primary sources, the result of Countryman's research efforts is impressive; the book includes paintings and a map of New York from 1813, and the final third contains a fascinating trove of documents, ranging from the "Virginia Law of Slavery" of 1905, to Phillis Wheatley's poetry and letters, to an excerpt from a 2008 speech by then-Senator Barack Obama. Some of these sources, such as the daily diaries of plantation owner William Byrd II, tell of unimaginable abuse in a matter-of-fact manner. Countryman makes a genuine effort to paint a picture of how excruciating the process of emancipation was in the years following 1776, but although his stated hope was that the book would present how "black people used the opportunities presented to them," the volume is more frequently a profile of black leaders who emerged at the time, from mathematician Benjamin Banneker to Richard Allen, the founder of the Mother Bethel church. Though thoroughly researched and thoughtful, Countryman's latest ultimately amounts to a brief but lifeless examination of a dynamic period in American history.