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Searching for Abigail


Martha Jones, one of our finest historians of the Black freedom struggle, has a powerful essay on trying to find evidence about the life of Abigail, the slave of John Jay, who attempted to escape while he was in Paris negotiating the end of the American Revolution.

I introduced my visitors to an enslaved woman whom I know by only one name, Abigail. Brought from the United States to Paris by one of America’s founders, John Jay, she died there in a failed attempt to win her liberty.

The city’s markers of memory — lieux des memoires — readily tell the story of men like Jay who finalized the terms of freedom for the new United States there in 1783. He was among the men who famously signed the Treaty of Paris that September, settling the American Revolutionary War. Still, Abigail’s story until today remains easy to overlook.

These fabled places are, I recognized, whitewashed. There is no mention of the enslaved people, like Abigail, who were bound to labor in the founders’ Parisian households. No site explains that during John Jay’s time in the French capital, while he brokered the new nation’s freedom, he also dealt in the unfreedom of others.

Abigail comes to us refracted through the concerns of those who conspired to keep her bound to the Jay family, and recovering her distinct voice is difficult to accomplish through records that she, as an enslaved woman, had little hand in constructing. Still, to give a fuller accounting of our nation’s founding and the many early Americans who contributed to it, I have collected small shards of the past that bring Abigail more clearly into view. As a historian, I worry that I won’t ever learn enough about her, and still am sure that Abigail along with John Jay must be remembered.

Of course, John Jay was from a New York, a strong slave state at the time of the Revolution. Northern slavery is something we conveniently forget when discussing this era. Yes, Thomas Jefferson was a total hypocrite. But so was nearly the entire American experience at the time of the American Revolution. I guess teaching this is some of that Critical Race Theory we keep hearing about! Wouldn’t want a honest portrayal of the nation’s founding or anything!!

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