A Plausible Man

The True Story of the Escaped Slave Who Inspired Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The remarkable story of the man behind the book that helped spark the Civil War, in a stunning historical detective story

“I love this research.” —Henry Louis Gates Jr., at a Hutchins Center presentation of Susanna Ashton’s findings

In December of 1850, a faculty wife in Brunswick, Maine, named Harriet Beecher Stowe hid a fugitive slave in her house. While John Andrew Jackson stayed for only one night, he made a lasting impression: drawing from this experience, Stowe began to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the most influential books in American history and the novel that helped inspire the overthrow of slavery in the United States.

A Plausible Man unfolds as a historical detective story, as Susanna Ashton combs obscure records for evidence of Jackson’s remarkable flight from slavery to freedom, his quest to liberate his enslaved family, and his emergence as an international advocate for abolition. This fresh and original work takes us through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the restoration of white supremacy—where we last glimpse Jackson losing his freedom again on a Southern chain gang.

In the spirit of Tiya Miles’s prizewinning All That She Carried and Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught, Susanna Ashton breathes life into a striving and nuanced American character, one unmistakably rooted in the vast sweep of nineteenth-century America.


“Stunning research and storytelling . . . delivers a gripping portrait of a fascinating man who never stopped fighting for his place in a hostile world, and a compelling meditation on the historian’s craft.”
—Marjoleine Kars, Senior Scholar, MIT, and author of Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast, winner of the 2021 Cundill History Prize and the 2021 Frederick Douglass Book Prize
“Susanna Ashton’s impressive research has recovered from near-oblivion the bold and problematic life of a former slave whose colorful story once thrilled antislavery audiences in the United States and Britain.”
—Fergus M. Bordewich, author of Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction
“What a fascinating book Susanna Ashton has written! She is a master detective, painstakingly piecing together the fragments of John Andrew Jackson’s life. After reading this biography, readers will not only understand far more about the wildly influential novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin but also about the challenges enslaved people faced during and after bondage—as well as the difficulties of reconstructing those stories. With skill and creativity, Ashton shows us it can be done.”
—Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, authors of Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy
“A scholarly detective story about a man who would inspire a world-changing book.”
Kirkus Reviews
“We should be grateful to Susanna Ashton for reviving John Andrew Jackson from long-forgotten archives. His was a truly American life, which is to say, one lived on the border between slavery and freedom. A Plausible Man is not simply plausible; it’s a story with meaning for all of us.”
—Michael Eric Dyson, New York Times bestselling author of Tears We Cannot Stop and Long Time Coming

Goodreads Reviews