A Madman’s Will

John Randolph, a wealthy enslaver from Virginia, member of Congress for almost 30 years, strong defender of states’ rights and prominent public speaker, died in 1833. In the will that he created in 1821, he stipulated the freeing of every enslaved person on his plantation, which would amount to one of the largest manumissions in American history: 383 people. Before this could happen, however, the court system had to deal with the legality of a will Randolph created in 1832 that did not grant those people freedom. To determine the legality of the latter will, the courts had to consider Randolph’s mental state—whether he was “mad” or sane when he prepared it. Meanwhile, the enslaved people whose freedom was on the line waited anxiously for 13 years for a final decision. When that moment finally came, their resettlement and “freedom” in Ohio turned to disappointment and tragedy. Historian and lawyer Gregory May brilliantly captures these extraordinary events with his compelling, meticulously documented and beautifully written A Madman’s Will: John Randolph, Four Hundred Slaves, and the Mirage of Freedom.

Randolph was not only “a political celebrity, but a colorful character of the first order,” May writes—someone who “always craved public attention” and who, over the course of his political career, both defended and denounced slavery. Two of his early wills, prepared in 1819 and 1821, “freed all of Randolph’s slaves and provided funds to resettle them outside Virginia,” May writes. However, Randolph’s final will did not offer anyone freedom but instead indicated that most of the people enslaved on his plantation would be sold.

May includes a fascinating look at the legal and medical framework the courts used to examine Randolph’s sanity after his death. There were many stories about his “peculiarities,” including “fluctuations between excitement and dejection, enthusiasm and gloom,” especially during the last 10 years of his life. A Madman’s Will also includes other interesting descriptions of testimony, scandal and greed, including entertaining depictions of disappointed relatives who had hoped to be heirs.

In the end, May writes, neither Randolph nor the people he enslaved “could escape the underlying pull of prevailing white assumptions about race and social order.” Many white people could not comprehend the plight of people who were enslaved and were indifferent about their predicament. And so when those 383 formerly enslaved Black people arrived in Mercer County in the “free” state of Ohio, they were met by a white mob—and white residents’ violent objections to their settlement continued from there.

May’s account shows that “freedom” of any kind was virtually impossible for Black people in the United States in the early 1800s, no matter how carefully planned. This important book should be of interest to a wide range of readers interested in American history.

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