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 Marketplace of Revolution by T. H. Breen


Christina’s Review: The Marketplace of Revolution by T. H. BreenThe Marketplace of Revolution : How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence by T. H. Breen William Smith Mason Professor of American History Northwestern University
Published by Oxford University Press on 2004-02-26
Genres: Business & Economics, Economic History, History, Revolutionary Period (1775-1800)
Pages: 400
Format: Paperback
Goodreads
three-half-stars
The Marketplace of Revolution offers a boldly innovative interpretation of the mobilization of ordinary Americans on the eve of independence. Breen explores how colonists who came from very different ethnic and religious backgrounds managed to overcome difference and create a common cause capable of galvanizing resistance. In a richly interdisciplinary narrative that weaves insights into a changing material culture with analysis of popular political protests, Breen shows how virtual strangers managed to communicate a sense of trust that effectively united men and women long before they had established a nation of their own. The Marketplace of Revolution argues that the colonists' shared experience as consumers in a new imperial economy afforded them the cultural resources that they needed to develop a radical strategy of political protest--the consumer boycott. Never before had a mass political movement organized itself around disruption of the marketplace. As Breen demonstrates, often through anecdotes about obscure Americans, communal rituals of shared sacrifice provided an effective means to educate and energize a dispersed populace. The boycott movement--the signature of American resistance--invited colonists traditionally excluded from formal political processes to voice their opinions about liberty and rights within a revolutionary marketplace, an open, raucous public forum that defined itself around subscription lists passed door-to-door, voluntary associations, street protests, destruction of imported British goods, and incendiary newspaper exchanges. Within these exchanges was born a new form of politics in which ordinary man and women--precisely the people most often overlooked in traditional accounts of revolution--experienced an exhilarating surge of empowerment. Breen recreates an

The American Revolution was not only a political revolution that engaged the elite members of the American colonies. It was a revolution that empowered colonists from all classes and across gender to stand together against the tyrannical mother country of England and their oppressive rule. This is what T. H. Breen focuses on in his book: The Marketplace of Revolution. The American Revolution was possible due to the mobilization of colonists who were brought together under the common cause of consumer oppression. These colonists developed strategies of collaborative resistance and communication that took consumer goods and politicized them across the Atlantic. They spoke through their actions against British control, including the British taxation of goods without the representation and consent of the American colonists. Breen focused on consumerism across the colonies and the development of the marketplace and colonial unification over the course of a decade prior to the outbreak of war.

In his book, Breen argued the American colonists shared in an imagined community of collective experiences through consumerism found in the marketplace. Despite being spread out across a long distance of land, the American colonists came together and took a stance against the “political oppression” of the British.(xiii, xiv-xv) Breen focused primarily on the decade leading up to the outbreak of the Revolution and the ability of ordinary men and women to play a role in the “politicizing” of imported goods. The shared experience and the actions taken by the colonists, including the boycotting of British goods, were a new form of public protest that transformed the Revolution into both a political and economic one. (21) To approach the development of this political and economic revolution that brought together the masses, including women, Breen focused on the development of choice that emerged in the marketplace during the 1760s and how this became the foundation for political resistance through the declaration of natural rights.

Breen laid out the sources he used succinctly in his book, including letters, colonial newspapers and customs records. He also looked at museum artifacts, archeologists’ findings, and probate records, amongst other sources.(35) (I personally found his look at artifacts to be intriguing) He utilized these sources to show the development of consumerism over time and how this brought colonists together and later contributed to their actions against the British. He also looked at advertisements in newspapers especially to demonstrate the growing number of consumer choices in the marketplace and how this choice developed into natural rights. As this concept grew, newspapers helped spread messages of discontent and actions to be taken against the British across the colonies. (examples on this can be found throughout Breen’s book, particularly pages 134, 290-293)

Breen focused on numerous colonial locations, ranging from port cities to wholesalers, merchants, peddlers, country stores and other consumer marketplaces. His focus was not limited to one part of the colonies but stretched from the New England colonies to the southern colonies, and included marketplace insights from cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and market-centers in the Chesapeake region further south.

His book was a dense history on how colonists politicized consumer goods and took a unified stance against British oppression. I personally enjoyed the book because it took readers away from the typical studies of the political elite and beyond the Constitutional Convention, “give me liberty or give me death” speeches, and the “we hold these truths to be self evident…” Declaration of Independence readings. I read this book for my Revolutionary America class and actually did a comparative review for the class between this book and Benjamin Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots. Taken together, these two books complimented each other. I read Breen’s first, which helped develop and further my understanding of consumerism in the colonies and the events that led to the Boston Tea Party (the primary focus of Carp’s book).

Overall, a good book and one I recommend reading for those interested in the period of the American Revolution. Breen helped to open my eyes to the complexities behind the causes of the revolution through the colonial marketplace through this reading. I have found his arguments in this book and other articles to be intriguing, and ones I have related back to as I have read other works on the revolutionary period, the transatlantic nature of the revolution, and the point at which the colonists no longer saw themselves as “British” and the revolution avoidable.

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