The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader

The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader

The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader

The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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. The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader examines the development of and clash between the dream of equality and the dream of wealth as they shaped three generations of a prominent Virginia family from 1715 to 1872. Just as major players on the world stage such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson articulated and embodied paradoxes at the heart of America, so too less famous white men made choices that were infused by and helped to perpetuate social dreams and nightmares. American Dreams analyzes the economic, racial, and sexual dynamics of family systems, multiracial households, and class networks by exploring the social origins, public careers, and emotional investments of the Prentis family of Williamsburg and Richmond. the clan’s founder, William Prentis, was an English indentured servant who rose from rags to riches by clerking in, then managing, and finally becoming the major shareholder in the colony of Virginia’s most successful store, which is still standing in Colonial Williamsburg. His son, Joseph Prentis Sr., became an influential Revolutionary-era judge and politician, exhibiting both the radical and the reactionary potentialities inherent in a movement for human freedom led by slaveholders. the sons of the third Prentis generation, Joseph and John, embarked on divergent paths, colluding and conflicting with one another during the first half of the nineteenth century, when the radical promise of the Revolutionary age was betrayed as the United States expanded its dedication to slavery and empire.

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