Gregory May is a historian who writes about the early American republic. In his first book, Jefferson’s Treasure, he used his knowledge of taxes and tax policy to bring a fresh and vigorous perspective to the new nation’s financial history. In A Madman’s Will, he draws on his past legal experience to tell the story of one of the largest and most controversial private emancipations in United States history.
Greg is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and the Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. After serving as a law clerk for Justice Lewis Powell on the United States Supreme Court, he practiced law in Washington, DC, and New York for over thirty years. He lives in Virginia.
A Conversation with Gregory May about A MADMAN’S WILL
Q: What’s A Madman’s Will about?
A: The book explores the history of a Virginia will that freed nearly four hundred people from slavery in 1846 and the racial prejudice that scattered them to the winds when they tried to settle land in Ohio that had been promised to them. The man who wrote the will—John Randolph of Roanoke—was one of the most flamboyant political figures in the early republic. The freedmen’s long journey to Ohio was the largest single migration of African Americans to a free state before the Civil War. And their reception in Ohio became infamous even in its own time.
Q: What does A Madman’s Will add to our understanding of American history?
A: In the first place, it’s a rattling good story—one of the most intriguing slices of history you can possibly imagine. It’s got everything from madness, scandal, and lawsuits to mobs and civil war. All of that gives the historical characters and their times a startling depth and complexity. But there’s more to the book than a good story. The book takes us to the heart of antebellum America’s dilemma about the meaning of freedom in a multiracial society infected by slavery. Because most readers will not have preconceptions about the characters in the story, this book offers a surprisingly raw encounter with a historical problem that remains with us today.
Q: What would you like readers to learn from the book?
A: That history is about critical thinking. When we read about slavery, it’s easy to make moral judgments. It’s tempting to believe that slaveholders who freed their slaves were somehow better than those who didn’t. But our moral judgements about the men and women we encounter in the past can interfere with our understanding of what happened. It’s only when we dig into their unfamiliar ways of living, their peculiar ways of thinking, and their very personal problems that we begin to see how events unfolded and how historians’ analysis of those events becomes part of the historical process. Understanding that historical process gives us analytical tools to address the problems of our own times.
A Conversation with Gregory May about JEFFERSON’S TREASURE
Q: Why did you decide to write about Albert Gallatin?
A: Because Gallatin is the least understood of the half dozen men who set the American government into motion. Most people know something about the first four presidents, and they’ve now learned a bit about Alexander Hamilton. But only a few historians know much about Albert Gallatin, who had as much to do with putting the federal government in operation as any of them.
Q: What made Gallatin that important?
A: Gallatin had a brilliant, intuitive understanding of public finance, and he came into American politics at a time when almost no one else did. Hamilton had used his own enormous financial ability to put in place the federal government’s original plans for taxing, spending, and banking. Jefferson, Madison, and other Republicans thought Hamilton’s plans would allow wealthy aristocrats to dominate the new government and deny the people the liberty they had earned in the Revolution. But Jefferson and the others did not know enough about finance to stop Hamilton. Gallatin did, and that soon made him the leader of the Republican opposition in Congress and the indispensable man in Jefferson’s cabinet when the Republicans came to power. Most people think that Hamilton’s financial system survived, but it didn’t. Gallatin took it apart, and the more innovative policies that Gallatin put in place defined the American fiscal system for much of the next century. The fiscal system we have today resembles Hamilton’s because the nation has changed profoundly in the last hundred years, but to imagine historical continuity between Hamilton’s system and our own is to misunderstand the American founding.
Q: Why has Gallatin been overlooked?
A: No one overlooked Gallatin in his own time. People named their children after him. Lewis and Clark named a great western river after him. And there are places called Gallatin all over the country. But most people today, including many historians, are put off by finance. It involves numbers, economics, and other things that seem difficult and boring. Most people find it easier to think of American history as a story about freedom and democracy. But no government can exist without money, so it’s impossible to understand the history of any government without knowing how it raised and spent money. The story of taxes and spending does not have to be boring. In fact, it’s very exciting because money is so often what people are fighting about when they quarrel about other things. When we look at America’s financial founding through the story of a man’s life, it becomes as lively, contentious, and engaging as anything we read in the news.
Q: How does Gallatin’s story bring the country’s early financial history to life?
A: Gallatin encountered the financial issues of this time in the course of a remarkable life that took him from revolutionary Geneva to the American backwoods, the muddy little town of Washington, the war-torn capitals of Europe, and the emerging port city of New York. Gallatin came to America as a nineteen-year-old immigrant without money or connections. He tried to seek his fortune on the western frontier, and he came to Congress through the whirlwind of a tax rebellion. He spoke with a French accent, and his enemies never let him forget that he was a foreigner who really oughtn’t to be in government at all. When he moved to Washington, it had more wildlife than people. The mosquitoes made him sick and killed his younger children. To reduce the federal government’s spending, he had to say no to a lot of powerful people—and to suffer the consequences. When the country went to war with Britain in 1812, Congress refused to raise the necessary taxes, the government defaulted on its debt, and Gallatin confronted the possibility that his financial reforms had been a mistake. Because Gallatin knew everybody, we also get interesting new looks at Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lafayette, Madame de Staël, John Quincy Adams, John Jacob Astor, and Andrew Jackson.