Writing a book about Thomas Jefferson means entering a very crowded field. From 1990 to 2017, the University of Virginia Press alone put out sixty-eight titles on the man, while hundreds more were issued by other publishers. With new tomes every year about the Adamses, Franklin, Hamilton, Jackson, Jay, Livingston, Madison, Monroe, Randolph, and Washington, many of them generously publicized by PBS or C-SPAN’s Book TV, talking about the founders has become a sort of American intellectual industry. No framer or father is exempt from tribute or scorn from scholars, pundits, and the average citizen on subjects from the legacy of slavery to the intent of the authors of the Constitution. These men are the Greek pantheon of twenty-first-century America. What’s left for a young scholar to say?
Jeffrey Einboden, professor of English at Northern Illinois University, is aware of what such challenges mean for his own book, Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives, which tells the story of two African Muslim slaves on the run in Kentucky who appeal to President Jefferson for their freedom. “It runs the risk,” admits Einboden, “of overshadowing Muslim slaves yet again, eclipsing their experiences by placing them in proximity to a towering figure in the American mind.” But with such an enthralling premise as Arabic slave writings in the early United States—including archival jewels unearthed for the first time—the book makes a new contribution despite the odds.
Einboden reveals a bank of forgotten moments tournants in which Islam and Arabic shaped America’s founding. Doing so, he expands on his earlier work on Arab-Islamic writings and nineteenth-century Western culture, whether Anglo-German literature in Islam and Romanticism or the imprint of Arabic on US literature in The Islamic Lineage of American Literary Culture. The latter focuses on “personal moments of Muslim source reception” by Western icons like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Washington Irving. Similarly, Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives is not a straightforward biography of the third president, but a microliterary history with a touch of scholarly imagining about far-flung people and places.
Mostly chronological, Einboden’s new work is bookended by the 1780s and the 1810–20s, two eras that saw Arabic slave writings become known at the highest levels of American power. In the former decade, the crucial year is 1788, when a captive African named Osman wrote what are the earliest surviving Arabic slave texts from an independent United States. His missives, two beautifully penned patchworks of the Qur’an’s shortest suras (chapters), made their way from a Georgia rice farm called Parnassus to the hands of Ezra Stiles, at the time, president of Yale University. A leading intellect of his day and Jefferson’s close friend, Stiles had received the texts from Abiel Holmes, a spirited young preacher whose oldest son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, eventually made his name as one of the “Fireside Poets” alongside Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Abiel Holmes’s grandson Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. would later serve on the Supreme Court.)
Although Osman’s letters did not secure his freedom, they stirred Stiles’s fertile imagination and foreshadowed another effort on behalf of Arabic-using Africans twenty years later. In October 1807 Ira P. Nash, a knockabout frontiersman remembered, according to a 1919 article in The Evening Missourian, as “the most eccentric man in this part of the country,” wrote to Jefferson asking for an interview on the matter of two African men jailed in Christian County, Kentucky, on the hunch that they were escaped slaves or even spies. These men caught Nash’s attention and became the talk of the town after they wrote two short dispatches in Arabic, which Nash dutifully conveyed to the president.
There ensued a luckless quest to find someone qualified to translate the Arabic, but by November, faced with British hostilities and confronting the prospect of an insurrection led by his former vice president, Aaron Burr, Jefferson was forced to set aside the men’s plight. They escaped again and headed east, only to be jailed a second time, in Carthage, Tennessee. Here the trail goes cold.
Scattered throughout Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives are literary gems that reveal the nineteenth-century American conceptions of slavery, Africa, and Islam. When Lewis and Clark grabbed headlines in 1807 for mapping the American West, poems appeared comparing the land’s rivers to the Nile and the Tigris. Antislavery verse was also a trend, including the three quatrains of “The Poor Negro Sadi,” which Jefferson cut out and pasted in his journal. Here is the last stanza:
Think not, Europe,
tho’ dark his complexion,
Dark, dark as the hue
of the African’s fate,
That his mind is devoid
of the light of reflection,
And knows not distinctions
of love or of hate.
Then there are the satirical dispatches of “Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan,” a Muslim caricature created by Washington Irving in his satiric New York periodical Salmagundi, a journal still published today. Framed as dispatches from America to a slave driver in North Africa, these letters were written to lampoon Jefferson for tyranny, a popular characterization especially following the Louisiana Purchase, which many saw as an exercise in unchecked power.
At one point, “Mustapha” invokes the then-widespread Ottoman stereotype of cruel despotism: Jefferson rules America like a “grand and most puissant bashaw” (an Anglicization of pasha, a word for a rank in the Ottoman aristocracy). Many of Jefferson’s critics resorted to this ugly trope, using “Turk” as a frequent stand-in for “Muslim.” British diplomat Augustus Foster scoffed at Jefferson’s “plain farmer” look with a reference to Ottoman “primeval simplicity of manners.” Ohio clergyman Manasseh Cutler dubbed him America’s “Grand Turk.” Supporters also used such language, but instead to satirize their opponents, whom they portrayed as insulting the president as a despotic “Grand Turk in Washington.”
Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives does much to help solve historical riddles, even as it brings up new and tantalizing ones. Where did the Arabic-using slaves who ended up in Kentucky start their journey, and how had they gotten to Kentucky in the first place? Why did Ira Nash, whose record of compassion was mixed at best, become so worked up about these men that he was willing to deliver their letters in person? We, along with Einboden, can only speculate: “Likely irritating once again to his white neighbors, it is not clear what prompted Nash to liberate the Africans in his charge.”
Einboden strives to make American history a bit more dynamic and a bit more global, and in this he follows a trend in research about other national traditions like those of Spain and Italy, both of which have rich cultural links to the Islamic world. Yet such globalizing cannot happen in the American context without help from a historical figure who, in the minds of many, stands for American exceptionalism, even if that is the very quality Einboden wants to unsettle. But while Jefferson may provide an occasion for the book, Einboden goes a long way toward coaxing his subject out from under Jefferson’s shadow.