A Madman's Will

A Madman’s Will by Gregory May

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for A Madman’s Will:

He screwed up the best thing he ever did.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the 383 manumitted slaves of John Randolph.

Fact for Non-History People:

After 1806, Virginia required freed slaves to leave the area within one year because God forbid they start spreading that whole “freedom” idea around.

Fact for History Nerds:

Slavers expected about 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of tobacco per person at each harvest.

My Take on A Madman’s Will:

John Randolph was a madman alright. He owned 383 slaves. He defended the institution of slavery. Well, mostly. He manumitted all 383 slaves when he died. Or did he? When you have multiple wills, with multiple codicils, and a penchant for changing your mind on a whim while making people angry, it can be hard to tell.

Gregory May looks into the life, but also the death of John Randolph in A Madman’s Will. The book feels like a historical offshoot of a true crime tome. I learned a little bit about John Randolph but a lot about manumission, how wills could be ridiculously easy to contest, and how people’s belief in slavery was a much bigger sliding scale than I realized. Some people were the regular horrible racists we hope lose in the end. Some were against slavery but had slaves and some just flip flopped to a maddening degree.

In the end, Randolph’s will mattered because the lives of 383 people depended upon it. However, the book shows that freedom doesn’t mean acceptance.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and W.W. Norton & Company.)


An insightful read for anyone interested in this time period. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:





Leave a Reply