The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader
Gudmestad, Robert, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader · Kari J. Winter · Athens: University of Georgia Press, 201 1 · xviii, 216 pp. * $59.95 cloth; $22.95 paper
John B. Prentis, the son of a wealthy Virginia judge, eschewed intellectual pursuits to work as an architect's apprentice for a Philadelphia Quaker. While in Pennsylvania, Prentis labored as a carpenter alongside African Americans and flirted with antislavery ideas. When he returned to the Old Dominion, Prentis scuffled about for wealth, buying and selling horses, running a jail, and tracking down pirates before becoming a slave trader. His wife Catherine was instrumental in making the business profitable by preparing meals, sewing clothing, and nursing slaves. Even while Prentis achieved a measure of financial success (on more than one occasion he loaned money to his brother, an attorney), he perceived himself as being of a lower status. In one letter, for instance, he described himself as a "mechanick" and extolled the value of labor (p. 135). And when he died in 1848, his self-drafted will was a plea to be recognized as a gentleman. The will also contained provisions that some of his slaves were to receive money and be emancipated upon the death of his wife. Kari Winter concludes, probably correctly, that Prentis was the father of those slaves.
Even though Winter promises to describe the "clash between the dream of equality and the dream of wealth as they shaped three generations of a prominent Virginia family," John Prentis is clearly the focus of the book (p. 1). The material on Prentis's grandfather and father seemed like an overly long introduction, and the author would have been better off expanding or contracting her coverage of these men. More seriously, Winter's basic premise is flawed. Even though Prentis toyed with antislavery ideas as a youth, he and most nineteenth-century southern whites would not have perceived a clash between equality and wealth. …