Freedom's Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America

Freedom's Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America

Freedom's Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America

Freedom's Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America

Synopsis

In 1793 James F. Brown was born a slave, and in 1868 he died a free man. At age 34 he ran away from his native Maryland to pass the remainder of his life as a gardener to a wealthy family in the Hudson Valley. Two years after his escape and manumission, he began a diary which he kept until his death. In Freedom's Gardener, Myra B. Young Armstead uses the apparently small and domestic details of Brown's diaries to construct a bigger story about the transition from slavery to freedom. In this first detailed historical study of Brown's diaries, Armstead utilizes Brown's life to illuminate the concept of freedom as it developed in the United States in the early national and antebellum years. That Brown, an African American and former slave, serves as such a case study underscores the potential of American citizenship during his lifetime.

Excerpt

This book is a historically contextualized reconstruction of the life of James Francis Brown (1793–1868) based on the long diary he kept from 1829 to 1866. Brown was a southern-born African American manumitted former fugitive slave who spent most of his working days as a master gardener for a wealthy white family in rural upstate New York. Politically enfranchised (a voter), he enjoyed an active social and civic life with friends and family in the Hudson Valley and in New York City. While each of these biographical tidbits may be intriguing, none of them in and of itself makes his story important. It is the sum of these facts, along with Brown’s deliberate chronicling of them, that lends significance to the man’s life because together they can help us better understand the early national and antebellum United States.

In one sense, James’s story is not unique. He wrote the story of his own life, as did countless other Americans of his day. He relocated to better his options, improved his economic standing, and was politically engaged in a new republican civic sphere. His is the story of the first post–Revolutionary era generation in U.S. history, which grappled during the early republican and antebellum years to define exactly what it had inherited from its immediate ancestors as a legacy of the American War of Independence. The historian Joyce Appleby has argued that this generation forged a new national identity distinct from that of its colonial-born forebears—that of the American citizen. Acting in the capitalist marketplace, shaped by religious revivalism and its tenets of hard work and discipline, and voicing opinions through new literary and political mechanisms, this generation promoted a vision of American democracy and its future with which contemporary Americans still reckon. That narrative was about the perception of opportunity, the wisdom of risk taking, the profitability of new ideas, and the soundness of democracy.

What makes James F. Brown’s story compelling, then, is that although he was born a slave in Maryland and therefore outside the intended or expected . . .

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