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An American Planter

Stephen Duncan of Antebellum Natchez and New York

Martha Jane Brazy

Publication Year: 2006

Extraordinarily wealthy and influential, Stephen Duncan (1787-1867) was a landowner, slaveholder, and financier with a remarkable array of social, economic, and political contacts in pre-Civil War America. In this, the first biography of Duncan, Martha Jane Brazy offers a compelling new portrait of antebellum life through exploration of Duncan's multifaceted personal networks in both the South and the North. Duncan grew up in an elite Pennsylvania family with strong business ties in Philadelphia. There was little indication, though, that he would become a cosmopolitan entrepreneur who would own over fifteen plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana, collectively owning more than two thousand slaves. With style and substance, Martha Jane Brazy describes both the development of Duncan's businesses and the lives of the slaves on whose labor his empire was constructed. According to Brazy, Duncan was a hybrid, not fully a southerner or a northerner. He was also, Brazy shows, a paradox. Although he put down deep roots in Natchez, his sphere of influence was national in scope. Although his wealth was greatly dependent on the slaves he owned, he predicted a clash over the issue of slave ownership nearly three decades before the onset of the Civil War. Perhaps more than any other planter studied, Duncan contradicts historians' definition of the southern slaveholding aristocracy. By connecting and contrasting the networks of this elite planter and those he enslaved, Brazy provides new insights into the slaveocracy of antebellum America.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Biography Series

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiii

I first began my research on Stephen Duncan while a greenhorn graduate student pursuing my master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Little did I know then that twenty years later I would still be thinking and writing about this topic...

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Prologue: "An Important Crisis Is at Hand"

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pp. 1-3

On a fall day in October 1831, United States senator Josiah S. Johnston of Louisiana opened a lengthy letter from a concerned citizen that began with the alarming lines: “I am satisfied, an important crisis is at hand, which it behooves the wise...

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1. "To Seek His Fortunes in the Distant South": Stephen Duncan's Migration from Pennsylvania to the Mississippi Territory

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pp. 4-16

Tucked within the gentle rolling hills of Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, surrounded by the Blue and Kittatinny Mountains, lies one of the oldest towns in the state west of the Susquehanna River—the borough of Carlisle. Here...

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2. Laying the Foundations of Mastery: Land, Slaves, Capital, and the Network of Elites

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pp. 17-34

As the dawn of the antebellum era crept over the ever-changing landscape of the nation, hints of monumental economic and social change could be glimpsed on the horizon. Slavery, race relations, the expanding economy, and growing sectionalism all loomed as pressing issues...

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3. Slaves, Politics, and Family: Stephen Duncan and the Challenges to Mastery

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pp. 35-51

Throughout the 1820s, Stephen Duncan exhibited mastery over his land, slaves, and money, as well as the familial, social, and economic connections he forged through marriage, friendship, and business. Yet such intertwined relationships could also be fragile. In spite of his wealth and...

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4. "We Will One Day Have Our Throats Cut in this County'': Stephen Duncan and the Challenges of Slavery

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pp. 52-67

In the 1820s, Stephen Duncan slowly and meticulously built his family’s wealth and anchored its position of power within the inner circle of the region’s most important social and economic networks. As the 1830s opened, he held a variety of valuable assets...

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5. Power and Position: Redefining Economic Self in Boom and Bust Times

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pp. 68-81

In spite of his myriad apprehensions about the growth of slavery, in the early 1830s Stephen Duncan embarked on a path that perpetuated those very fears: a systematic expansion of his family’s wealth and power through plantation profits. Like other wealthy Mississippians, he had been...

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6. Public Duties and Private Worlds: The Roles and Dynamics of the Duncan Family

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pp. 82-100

On December 12, 1837, Stephen Duncan and several of his associates, friends, and relatives spent the day in downtown Natchez conducting their daily business. William Johnson, a free black barber and small farmer, noted their presence in the city that morning. Later that evening...

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7. Survival of the Fittest: Preservation of Wealth and Family

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pp. 101-115

In the late 1830s, as Stephen Duncan grieved over the death of his daughter, loss of a very different nature swept across the nation. The panic of 1837, which hit Mississippi the hardest of all the states, wreaked havoc on the antebellum economy and caused...

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8. An Empire Realized: The Concentration of Wealth and the Negotiation of Shifting Networks

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pp. 116-129

In the winter of 1853, the prominent Natchez geologist and agriculturalist Benjamin L. C. Wailes reflected that Stephen Duncan was “perhaps at this time the wealthiest cotton planter in this state,” adding, “Dr. D. is one of the most systematic observing and calculating planters. . . . He promises me...

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9. Underground Networks: Slave Communities and Slavery on the Duncan Plantations

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pp. 130-149

In the late spring of 1849, Stephen Duncan anxiously informed Charles P. Leverich that cholera “of unusually virulent character” had broken out in the Mississippi Delta. In an attempt to protect his massive slave force from the deadly effects of what had become a nationwide epidemic, Duncan traveled...

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Epilogue: "We Are in the Midst of Perils"

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pp. 150-158

“We are in the midst of perils all our lives—& at this particular juncture, we are beset with troubles on all sides,” Stephen Duncan wrote his sister, Emily, on the eve of secession in December 1860. “A universal bankruptcy, was [sic] about to take place,” he...


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pp. 159-204


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pp. 205-221


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pp. 223-232

E-ISBN-13: 9780807142721
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807131411

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Southern Biography Series