Christina’s Review: The First Emancipator by Andrew Levy


Christina’s Review: The First Emancipator by Andrew LevyThe First Emancipator by Andrew Levy
Published by Random House on 2005
Genres: Colonial Period (1600-1775), History, Revolutionary Period (1775-1800), United States
Pages: 310
Format: Hardcover
Goodreads
three-stars
Robert Carter III, the grandson of Tidewater legend Robert “King” Carter, was born into the highest circles of Virginia's Colonial aristocracy. He was neighbor and kin to the Washingtons and Lees and a friend and peer to Thomas Jefferson and George Mason. But on September 5, 1791, Carter severed his ties with this glamorous elite at the stroke of a pen. In a document he called his Deed of Gift, Carter declared his intent to set free nearly five hundred slaves in the largest single act of liberation in the history of American slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation.How did Carter succeed in the very action that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson claimed they fervently desired but were powerless to effect? And why has his name all but vanished from the annals of American history? In this haunting, brilliantly original work, Andrew Levy traces the confluence of circumstance, conviction, war, and passion that led to Carter's extraordinary act.At the dawn of the Revolutionary War, Carter was one of the wealthiest men in America, the owner of tens of thousands of acres of land, factories, ironworks–and hundreds of slaves. But incrementally, almost unconsciously, Carter grew to feel that what he possessed was not truly his. In an era of empty Anglican piety, Carter experienced a feverish religious visionthat impelled him to help build a church where blacks and whites were equals. In an age of publicly sanctioned sadism against blacks, he defied convention and extended new protections and privileges to his slaves. As the war ended and his fortunes declined, Carter dedicated himself even more fiercely to liberty, clashing repeatedly with his neighbors, his friends, government officials, and, most poignantly, his own family.But Carter was not the only humane master, nor the sole partisan of freedom, in that freedom-loving age. Why did this troubled, spiritually torn man dare to do what far more visionary slave owners only dreamed of? In answering this question, Andrew Levy teases out the very texture of Carter's life and soul–the unspoken passions that divided him from others of his class, and the religious conversion that enabled him to see his black slaves in a new light.Drawing on years of painstaking research, written with grace and fire, The First Emancipator is a portrait of an unsung hero who has finally won his place in American history. It is an astonishing, challenging, and ultimately inspiring book.

I am embarrassed for how long it has been since my last book review and for how long it took me to get through this last book. I have clearly not been on my A-game! However, I am back at it…

I just finished a book I was recommended: The First Emancipator: the Forgotten Story of Robert Carter the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves by Andrew Levy. I loved the history in the book and the relevance to my work in the Northern Neck at a founding father’s home. In addition, my graduate research focused on freedom suits brought forth by slaves against their masters around the late 18th and early 19th centuries in select Virginia counties. I was looking forward to potential connections I could make from this book and the motivating factors from the period that caused slave owners to emancipate their slaves and the reactions of those surrounding them. I was hoping this book would give me more insight on why Robert Carter made the decisions he did. In the synopsis of the book, Levy noted Carter’s act was “the largest single act of liberation in the history of American slavery before the Emancipation Proclamation.” Carter was a leader… what made him different over other slave owners of the time?

Levy’s book read more as a biography than a thesis-centered piece. Levy began with a background on Carter’s family, from his father, Robert “King” Carter, to his wife and children. He also added interesting insights on the family as recorded by Philip Vickers Fithian, the family’s tutor. (Whose journal is also a well-known and recommended read I hope to get to soon) Overall, the book was good, however, I felt there was not a strong argument or connection that really answered why Carter was a leader in offering the Deed of Gift to nearly 500 slaves.

There was a lot on Fithian, perhaps because his journal contains such well-documented information from the period. There was a lot on Carter’s immediate family, but some of the information I did not find totally relevant. Levy wrote about Carter’s rowdy sons, one of whom was believed to have slid into bed with one of the house slaves, and he wrote about Carter’s troubled wife and her fear of thunderstorms. There was also a daughter who one day shaved off her eyebrow… while the stories of the family members were interesting on their own, they were lost to me and irrelevant to the story as a whole.

The chapter titled “Deed of Gift [1789-1804]” was the chapter I had been waiting for that addressed my questions more directly. So when did this change from slave holder to emancipator begin? From the book, there was not one set event or answer to this question. Some of the factors that may have played a role:

  • Revolutionary sentiments – how can one fight for freedom of tyranny from the British while still holding slaves and denying their freedom?
  • The Enlightenment – Carter did undergo some religious and spiritual transformations like others during this period, and he turned to the Baptist Church.
  • The “Redemption Song” (137) – Taking the ideas above and combining with “a strong marriage, an active church, and an egalitarian government,” according to Levy, Carter became a good man.

In this chapter, Levy noted the news of Carter’s Deed of Gifts freeing 442 slaves, and how this news did not spread far and wide like one may think. (146) Levy also noted Carter’s fascination with death and the end of the world. He noted Carter was convinced he was dying by the 1800s, in addition to the effects of the French Revolution on his emotions. (163) There were so many interesting facts throughout this chapter and the book, but I still did not receive information that made me fully understand Carter’s decision to emancipate his slaves over other founding fathers (with the exception of Jefferson who was unable to due to his debt).

One thing I would have liked to have seen more information on and statistics related to was the 1782 law in Virginia that legalized manumission. The act of manumitting one’s slaves through their last Will, or through a Deed of Gift (as Carter chose) was not even legal until 1782. Carter would not have been able to legally free his slaves prior to this date… it is a significant date in Virginia and in Carter’s history. The story of Robert Carter would have benefitted with more information on this law and perhaps information on the statistics behind owners who freed their slaves following the passage of this law. Carter’s actions were revolutionary, he was a visionary, and more information on the 1782 manumission law and actions taken as a result of this law would have further demonstrated why.

Another fact that would have been interesting to investigate further was Carter’s move from Virginia’s Northern Neck and his home, Nomony Hall, to Baltimore. During his time in Baltimore, his religious loyalties picked up more. Levy noted he had business motivations to move to Baltimore as well as two daughters in the area. However, Levy did not note that Baltimore was in the north and different from other cities. Baltimore was progressive in the free black labor movement. Without exhausting this review, I recommend checking out Seth Rockman’s book: Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. In his book, Rockman looked at the labor population in Baltimore which consisted of not only enslaved individuals, but also free black and white workers, as well as immigrants. Baltimore had a mixed-race labor population who worked together side-by-side for the same wages, something not seen in many other areas of the country. (Rockman, 47, 56) In my opinion, there may have been more in Carter’s decision to move to Baltimore to live out the remainder of his days.

Overall, The First Emancipator was a very interesting look at a historical leader from Virginia. Robert Carter III has been forgotten by many, so it was refreshing to have a look at his character and influence from Andrew Levy. However, I felt the book needed more… there could have been a stronger focus on the act of manumission itself with more supporting research added to Robert Carter as to his motivations and title as the “First Emancipator.”

Christina’s Review: The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century edited by Warren M. Billings


Christina’s Review: The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century edited by Warren M. BillingsThe Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century by Warren M. Billings
Published by Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia on 2009-01-26
Genres: Colonial Period (1600-1775), History, United States
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
Goodreads
four-half-stars
Since its original publication in 1975, The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century has become an important teaching tool and research volume. Warren Billings brings together more than zoo period documents, organized topically, with each chapter introduced by an interpretive essay. Topics include the settlement of Jamestown, the evolution of government and the structure of society, forced labor, the economy, Indian - Anglo relations, and Bacon's Rebellion. This revised, expanded, and updated edition adds approximately 30 additional documents, extending the chronological reach to 1700. Freshly rethought chapter introductions and suggested readings incorporate the vast scholarship of the past 30 years. New illustrations of seventeenth - century artifacts and buildings enrich the texts with recent archaeological findings. With these enhancements, and a full index, students, scholars, and those interested in early Virginia will find these documents even more enlightening.

This is one of my personal favorite books to keep on my shelf. The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century is a documentary history of Virginia from 1606 through 1700. It’s a great read for anyone interested in the history of one of our first colonies and states, and one I reference in research quite a bit.

I was recommended this book by one of my professors who wanted us to read primary research material for an early American history class. Being from Virginia, I jumped on this read. The book is organized with letters, documents, lists, court notes, and more, broken up into the following sections:

  1. “The Beginnings” – including information on the settlement of Virginia, such as instructions given to ship crews, contents of ships, letters of experiences, and more.
  2. “The Evolution of Self-Government in Virginia: The Governor and the General Assembly” – this section dove deeper into the construction of the government by the British and the development of the House of Burgesses, with a look at select Acts, elections and other legislation.
  3. “The Evolution of Self-Government in Virginia: Local Government” – this section dove deeper into the country court systems, deeds, information on commissions and more Acts. This section also contained information on court cases I later used in research, including text on land and debt suits and punishments.
  4. “The Structure of Society” – looking more at census records and land patents. Here the editor also included papers from a Virginia family, the Willoughby Family.
  5. “Bound Labor: Indentured Servitude” – a more in-depth look at indentured servants, including runaways and thefts associated with.
  6. “Bound Labor: Slavery” – this is another section I have referenced for research before on Virginia slavery history. There is information on runaways, slave insurrections, and court cases including freedom suits. More information is also included on laws that defined slavery and its progression in Virginia society.
  7. “Tobacco and Trade” – Virginia’s early economy thrived on tobacco, and this section exemplifies its importance for individuals in society during colonization and early settlement.
  8. “Indians and Whites: The Conflict of Cultures” – more information on Native Americans, including the Anglo-Indian war of 1675-77 is included in this section. Pieces from notable characters in Virginia history, such as John Smith and John Rolfe, were also included here.
  9. “Upheaval and Rebellion” – Virginia’s history contained court cases, riots, and rebellion that defined the colony’s development. Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, led by Nathanial Bacon, was a notable rebellion in early colonial history with documents included in this text.
  10. “Life in Seventeenth-Century Virginia” – This is an overall general history of the settling of the colony, including documentation on travel and promise in Virginia, the development of homes and families, information on religion, as well as leisure activities that entertained early colonists.

Overall, this is an interesting compilation of documents from seventeenth century Virginia that add clarity to the colonial developments of the country. Each section begins with an overview of the topic, followed by suggested readings (primary, secondary and electronic) then a selection of documents that support the topic. It’s educational, at times a quick read, and at others times a little more challenging as the reader confronts old English text. It is definitely one I will keep on my shelf for quick reference on topics of colonial history in Virginia.

pj - christina

Christina’s Review: Sensibility and the American Revolution by Sarah Knott


Christina’s Review: Sensibility and the American Revolution by Sarah KnottSensibility and the American Revolution by Sarah Knott
Published by Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia on 2009
Genres: Colonial Period (1600-1775), History, Revolutionary Period (1775-1800), United States
Pages: 338
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
Goodreads
two-half-stars
In the wake of American independence, it was clear that the new United States required novel political forms. Less obvious but no less revolutionary was the idea that the American people needed a new understanding of the self. Sensibility was a cultural movement that celebrated the human capacity for sympathy and sensitivity to the world. For individuals, it offered a means of self-transformation. For a nation lacking a monarch, state religion, or standing army, sensibility provided a means of cohesion. National independence and social interdependence facilitated one another. What Sarah Knott calls "the sentimental project" helped a new kind of citizen create a new kind of government.
Knott paints sensibility as a political project whose fortunes rose and fell with the broader tides of the Revolutionary Atlantic world. Moving beyond traditional accounts of social unrest, republican and liberal ideology, and the rise of the autonomous individual, she offers an original interpretation of the American Revolution as a transformation of self and society.

In Sarah Knott’s words, sensibility was perceived “as a distinctive mode of self” that takes into account feelings and sympathy to connect the self with society. (5) This definition helped to understand Knott’s use of the word in her cultural history, Sensibility and the American Revolution. According to Knott, sensibility was “the fundamental link to self and society.” (1) She followed the transformation of sensibility through the period surrounding the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution in her “sentimental project.” This term consisted of the transformation of sensibility as the self and society were reconstructed together during this period. (2-3) Looking at this sentimental project, Knott argued the American Revolution was not just about the fight for independence from British tyranny; the Revolution was also part of a key period in the development of the American people, society and politics together. (4) The American colonists had the opportunity to transform society and their selves into a utopian form through social revolution as they fought to separate themselves from British control and write their own Constitution.

To support her argument, Knott focused primarily on the latter half of the eighteenth century in the cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia. While Knott had a number of strengths in her research through her unique use of sources and approach to the period not typically taken by other historians (particularly her research on booksellers and physicians) there were weaknesses that could have used further elaboration: She focused on nervous disease and mentioned the disease did not arrive in the colonies until the decades prior to the Revolution, and when it did arrive, “it flooded.” (92) The reader was left to presume there may have been an influx of British at this time and the monarch asserting control or perhaps the effects of the Seven Year’s War may have led to the arrival of nervous disease. Knott also touched on the use of cognomens. She focused on the private use of cognomens and their significance in journals, but she did not explain the difference in these private cognomens and public aliases found in the Federalist Papers or other political pieces published for mass audiences. These aliases were covered by historians more often than Knott’s journal cognomens. It would have been helpful to understand the difference of the more popular use of masking names over the private use and why these had a stronger effect and reflection on sensibility. Finally, at times Knott presented some cynical assumptions that read more like her opinion than supported her argument. For example, in her depiction of Peggy Arnold following the capture of Benedict Arnold as a traitor, Knott described the theatrical performance put on by Peggy as the officers visited her, noting “she needed to ensure” her innocence through a public display.(177) Perhaps it was theatrics that prompted Peggy to behave the way she did, however, Knott’s mentioning of this event read more cynical and assumptious and was more of a distraction than support for her argument and understanding of sensibility. (92, 110, 177)

Some personal notes: This was a dense book. Knott defined sensibility in Jane Austin’s terms… at times, I am not going to lie (and this is harsh), I felt like I was reading gibberish. My brain was mush and I had to go back and read, and re-read paragraphs and still could not grasp the full content. In addition, I recommend keeping a dictionary close by. This book was a unique turn from the usual Revolutionary histories typically published. I had to read this book for my Revolutionary era class and appreciated the discussion that followed with the group to help iron out the content in relation to the argument and this significance for the time period.

Overall, I felt Knott took a unique approach to the transformation of self and society and its contributions to the historical studies that further the understanding of the period around the American Revolution. However, I would not recommend this book to someone looking for a casual read or for a book to help further their understanding about the revolutionary period in America without further background and in-depth knowledge of the subject. This book was more for those who have a background in literature studies or for those interested in cultural histories and a deeper intellectual understanding of the Revolution. If you do decide to read, I recommend reading with another so you can talk it out and discuss the thesis.

pj - christina