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American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader

Kari J. Winter

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Series: Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900


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p. ix

List of Illustrations

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p. xi

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pp. xiii-xiv

Writing requires solitude, but it is also, in my experience, a profoundly social, collaborative process. Many people enabled this book. First and foremost, it would not have come into existence without the inspiration of my writing partner, David R. Castillo. ...

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Note on the Text

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p. xv

The documents transcribed in this book present many difficulties of interpretation as a consequence of their sometimes fragile condition, poor penmanship, meager punctuation, and random capitalization. John B. Prentis rarely used periods to mark the end of sentences; he sometimes used commas, colons, or dashes but usually simply ran sentences and phrases together. ...

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pp. 1-8

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. ...

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One. Possessive Relations

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pp. 9-48

Christ's Hospital in London offered terror, excitement, confusion, education, opportunity, and loneliness to the twelve hundred pupils who lived there at the dawn of the eighteenth century. They were called the Blue Coat Boys after the school's uniform: long blue gowns, knee breeches, and yellow stockings. ...

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Two. Apprenticeship

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pp. 49-70

"Dear Brother, I embrace this opportunity of writing these few lines to you to let you know that I arrived at Norfolk safe" (May 1805, WPFP). So opens John B. Prentis's voluminous correspondence to his family. In May 1805, at the age of seventeen, he set off to study architecture as an indentured apprentice in Philadelphia, stopping in Norfolk to catch a boat that would sail up the Atlantic Coast to the Delaware Bay and into the city of Philadelphia. ...

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Three. Brotherly Collusions

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pp. 71-93

Possessing one slave and a few personal items, twenty-two-year-old John B. Prentis felt dispossessed, bereft, and anxious about his future. Aching with desire to possess his dream of the good life, he decided that Richmond, a familiar city in which his family was known and respected, offered the best prospects for professional success. ...

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Four. Slave Trading

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pp. 94-124

After his financial hardships of 1817-18 and the national economic crash of 1819, the notion that poverty was "a great crime" began to fester in John Prentis's soul. The specter of impoverishment threatened his ideas about who he was and his roles as husband, brother, uncle, employer, and benefactor. ...

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Five. Family Values

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pp. 125-154

For John Prentis, the hardest part of being a slave trader was not figuring out how to deal with escapes and revolts; he found excitement in the chase, pleasure in the hunt. The hardest part was figuring out how to negotiate the tangled webs of "my family, black and white." ...

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Six. Wills and Possessions

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pp. 155-172

In the mid-1840s, the United States vigorously expanded its empire, producing a steady increase in the price of slaves. The momentous annexation of Texas as a slave state in 1845 produced a 21 percent increase in "the price of prime field hands in the New Orleans slave market" (Howe 700). ...

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Seven. Relic(t)s

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pp. 173-190

"All knowledge is, of course, to some extent imaginary," writes Ian Baucom in Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History. "The boast of evidence, however, is that it limits and constrains the promiscuity of the imagination, weds imagination to a liturgy of facts, records, documented events. ...


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pp. 191-192


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pp. 193-202


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pp. 203-215

E-ISBN-13: 9780820339535
E-ISBN-10: 0820339539
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820338385
Print-ISBN-10: 0820338389

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 27 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900
Series Editor Byline: Richard S. Newman, Patrick Rael, and Manisha Sinha, Series Editors See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794700457
MUSE Marc Record: Download for American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Slaveholders -- Virginia -- Biography.
  • Slave traders -- Virginia -- Biography.
  • Prentis, John B. (John Brooke), 1788-1848 -- Political and social views.
  • Prentis, John B. (John Brooke), 1788-1848 -- Family.
  • Prentis, John B. (John Brooke), 1788-1848.
  • Slavery -- Social aspects -- Virginia -- History.
  • Virginia -- Race relations.
  • Richmond (Va.) -- Biography.
  • Williamsburg (Va.) -- Biography.
  • Virginia -- Social conditions.
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