The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader
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.
Subjects: History, Sociology
Table of Contents
You are viewing the table of contents
You do not have access to this
on JSTOR. Try logging in through your institution for access.