The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader

The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader

Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader
    Book Description:

    As a young man, John B. Prentis (1788-1848) expressed outrage over slavery, but by the end of his life he had transported thousands of enslaved persons from the upper to the lower South. Kari J. Winter's life-and-times portrayal of a slave trader illuminates the clash between two American dreams: one of wealth, the other of equality. Prentis was born into a prominent Virginia family. His grandfather, William Prentis, emigrated from London to Williamsburg in 1715 as an indentured servant and rose to become the major shareholder in colonial Virginia's most successful store. William's son Joseph became a Revolutionary judge and legislator who served alongside Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and James Madison. Joseph Jr. followed his father's legal career, whereas John was drawn to commerce. To finance his early business ventures, he began trading in slaves. In time he grew besotted with the high-stakes trade, appeasing his conscience with the populist platitudes of Jacksonian democracy, which aggressively promoted white male democracy in conjunction with white male supremacy. Prentis's life illuminates the intertwined politics of labor, race, class, and gender in the young American nation. Participating in a revolution in the ethics of labor that upheld Benjamin Franklin as its icon, he rejected the gentility of his upbringing to embrace solidarity with "mechanicks," white working-class men. His capacity for admirable thoughts and actions complicates images drawn by elite slaveholders, who projected the worst aspects of slavery onto traders while imagining themselves as benign patriarchs. This is an absorbing story of a man who betrayed his innate sense of justice to pursue wealth through the most vicious forms of human exploitation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3953-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
    (pp. 1-8)

    In a world that was largely unfree, the Enlightenment visions of liberty, equality, and brotherhood simultaneously inspired alarm and hope. At the heart of conflicting ideologies of governance lay the question of who had the right to control material resources and to profit from human labor. Most men were ready to embrace the notion that they were as entitled to the fruits of their labor as were their social “betters,” but few were prepared to accept the notion that their social “inferiors” possessed similar inalienable rights. The dream of human equality simultaneously enlivened and threatened the dream of personal wealth....

  7. CHAPTER 1 Possessive Relations
    (pp. 9-48)

    Christ’s Hospital in London offered terror, excitement, confusion, education, opportunity, and loneliness to the twelve hundred pupils who lived there at the dawn of the eighteenth century. They were called the Blue Coat Boys after the school’s uniform: long blue gowns, knee breeches, and yellow stockings. The widowed, impoverished father, John Prentis, succeeded in his 1707 petition to gain his son, William, admission to the school, which had been founded by King Edward VI to educate orphans and sons of poor free men in commerce (Gill 15–18). At eight years of age, William Prentis was the median age of...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Apprenticeship
    (pp. 49-70)

    “Dear Brother, I embrace this opportunity of writing these few lines to you to let you know that I arrived at Norfolk safe” (May 1805, wpfp). So opens John B. Prentis’s voluminous correspondence to his family. In May 1805, at the age of seventeen, he set off to study architecture as an indentured apprentice in Philadelphia, stopping in Norfolk to catch a boat that would sail up the Atlantic Coast to the Delaware Bay and into the city of Philadelphia. John’s prose was saturated with the values of his upbringing: effusive sentiment, eagerness to please, and a strong sense of...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Brotherly Collusions
    (pp. 71-93)

    Possessing one slave and a few personal items, twenty-two-year-old John B. Prentis felt dispossessed, bereft, and anxious about his future. Aching with desire to possess his dream of the good life, he decided that Richmond, a familiar city in which his family was known and respected, offered the best prospects for professional success. A picturesque town on gentle hills, Richmond had supplanted Williamsburg as the capital of Virginia in the late eighteenth century and would become the capital of the Confederacy in 1861. On Prentis’s arrival in 1810, it was burgeoning into a cultural, commercial, and manufacturing entrepôt connecting Virginia’s...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Slave Trading
    (pp. 94-124)

    After his financial hardships of 1817–18 and the national economic crash of 1819, the notion that poverty was “a great crime” began to fester in John Prentis’s soul. The specter of impoverishment threatened his ideas about who he was and his roles as husband, brother, uncle, employer, and benefactor. During his first eight years in Richmond, he had focused on developing his trades as a builder, carpenter, landlord, and jailer. He occasionally bought and sold slaves to turn a quick profit, as did virtually all slaveholders, but slave trading was a supplement to rather than a central source of...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Family Values
    (pp. 125-154)

    For John Prentis, the hardest part of being a slave trader was not figuring out how to deal with escapes and revolts; he found excitement in the chase, pleasure in the hunt. The hardest part was figuring out how to negotiate the tangled webs of “my family, black and white.” He was a man of action who was best able to command men and speculate in human flesh when he did not pause for thought. When he confronted his family, black and white, his vexed tangle of needs, desires, fears, rage, and resentment grew so raw that he sometimes was...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Wills and Possessions
    (pp. 155-172)

    In the mid-1840s, the United States vigorously expanded its empire, producing a steady increase in the price of slaves. The momentous annexation of Texas as a slave state in 1845 produced a 21 percent increase in “the price of prime field hands in the New Orleans slave market” (Howe 700). John B. Prentis continued to capitalize on the boom markets until 1848, when the Atlantic world roiled with revolutions against despotism. President James K. Polk, adopting a characteristically American posture of self-satisfaction, declared to his emissary in Paris, “The great principles of popular sovereignty which were proclaimed in 1776 by...

  13. CHAPTER 7 Relic(t)s
    (pp. 173-190)

    “All knowledge is, of course, to some extent imaginary,” writes Ian Baucom in Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History. “The boast of evidence, however, is that it limits and constrains the promiscuity of the imagination, weds imagination to a liturgy of facts, records, documented events. If to know is always, in part, to imagine, then evidence demands that imagination bind itself to the empirically demonstrable” (15). As long as we bind our imaginations to what is demonstrable in written documents, however, those who were dispossessed in life will remain dispossessed after death. Imagination is...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 191-192)
    (pp. 193-202)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 203-215)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 216-216)