- Virginia Johnson
Fiction authors sometimes begin historical narratives by announcing the discovery of a long-forgotten strong box in a dusty attic containing purportedly true accounts of times passed handily preserved for the modern reader’s enjoyment. T.O. Madden, Jr.'s We Were Always Free starts with just such a scenario, but unlike historical fiction, this is no ploy. The history unearthed is real and traces back to colonial Virginia when Mary Madden, an Irish woman, gave birth to a child of mixed race on August 4, 1758 in Spotsylvania County.
Because of the laws of the time, just as the mother was free so would Mary’s child, Sarah, be considered free, as would all of Sarah’s descendents. Mary and her newborn were first tended at the Collins farm in Spotsylvania, and the church vestry paid the Collins for their year of upkeep with 600 pounds of tobacco taken in tithes from the parishioners. In 1759, still being paupers, Mary was sent along with her baby, to the local workhouse where the poor labored to support themselves.
Just a year later, the toddler Sarah was taken from her mother and conveyed to Fredericksburg. There, though free, she like other child paupers of either race, was bound out as a “Servant and Apprentice” until the age of 31. After a few years, her Fredericksburg master died in debt, and Sarah’s indenture was transferred. She was sent to Montpelier in Orange County where she became the servant of Colonel James Madison, the father of the future president.
At last free of her indenture and with several children to support, Sarah took her training as a seamstress and laundress and turned it into an independent business. Little by little, her descendents increased their holdings. By the time of the Civil War, Madden’s Tavern was a popular stop for wayfarers black and white, wealthy and poor, between Fredericksburg and Culpeper. The Civil War’s looting and destruction broke the Madden fortune, and the book is rich in detail for this period.
In post-war years, the Maddens would take advantage of the new opportunities for education, and some became school teachers and preachers. The author, T.O. Madden, Jr., chose business. He worked steadily through the Depression, bringing his farm goods to market in Washington, D.C. and eventually becoming successful in real estate. With We Were Always Free, he brings a fascinating, true story to life—relying on both carefully maintained family records, photographs and oral history to give a real sense of times past and personalities that are well-remembered.