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Jump into U.S. history instead of skydiving

March 20, 2013

In colonial Virginia in 1654, a black man named John Casor became an answer to this trivia question: Who was the first man in the colonies to be legally declared a slave by the courts?

But the more interesting trivia question concerns Anthony Johnson, who sued to have Casor committed to his perpetual servitude. That’s because Johnson, who became the future nation’s first known slaveholder, was black as well.

I offer this tidbit, not as it pertains to Casor and Johnson, but in my own defense. Whereas most people on vacation end up in the tropics, or on a cruise, or skydiving or something, we tend to wind up in exciting places like the Northern Neck of Virginia, where you will not find many wet T-shirt contests (although this might be one way to get people interested in history), but you will find wonderfully friendly people, excellent libraries, 250-year-old plantation houses and a million good stories about the founding of our nation.

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For example, Casor was under the impression that he was an indentured servant, as Johnson himself had been when he arrived on American shores in 1619.

Johnson worked his seven years and earned his freedom, at which point he began buying land, raising crops and was successful to the point that he began to employ indentured servants of his own.

But isn’t it human nature that as soon as you have yours, you are reluctant to give someone else his due, even though you were once in the exact same circumstances?

So after working off his indenture, John Casor trotted off and went to work for a man named Robert Parker, prompting Johnson’s plea to have Casor declared to be a slave — over the protests of Parker, who was white, who claimed that Casor was free. History is so deliciously unpredictable.

This is in part why we find the Northern Neck (the land bounded by the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers) so fascinating. It is the birthplace of Washington, Monroe and Madison, as well as other luminaries, including John Marshall and Robert E. Lee.

Bobby Lee, incidentally, might have been only about the fourth or fifth most interesting Lee. I defy you to keep the whole Lee family straight, but it’s enough to know for starters that one helped edit the precursor of the Declaration of Independence, and two more signed the document as we know it today, and a fourth helped win the Revolution under George Washington.

These were the so-so patriots. The real Lee firebrand remained in England where he agitated for independence and wound up in the French court with Ben Franklin, helping to bring de Grasse sailing into the Chesapeake Bay, thereby checkmating Cornwallis.

But my favorite is Richard Henry Lee, who on June 7, 1776, introduced this resolution to the Second Continental Congress: “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

Unlike today, the Congress back then was wildly divided and no one knew if the resolution would pass, but John Hancock asked Thomas Jefferson to tinker around a bit with a draft declaration of American independence on the off chance that Lee’s motion would fly.

Which it did on July 2, with Jefferson’s Declaration passing two days later.

In another 15 years Lee was out of politics on the grounds that one could keep his political standing or his humanity, but not both.

Who says this stuff is more boring than skydiving?

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at timr@herald-mail.com.

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