- Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation, and: Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution
Rhys Isaac and David Waldstreicher reconstruct the stories of two men who experienced the American Revolution toward the end of long lives. One—Benjamin Franklin—signed the U.S. Constitution to cap an illustrious career as scientist and diplomat. The other—Landon Carter—was a wealthy slaveowner in Virginia and might like Franklin have become a so-called Founding Father had he not died in 1778. Of the same generation, although from starkly different social origins, Carter and Franklin shared a similar set of hesitations when confronted by the turbulence of the American Revolution. As historians, Isaac and Waldstreicher do not share the same generation, and their interpretations of the American Revolution are dramatically divergent. Yet their microhistories are fruitful to juxtapose because they are so similar in subject and method, and because together they beg major questions about the meaning of the American Revolution.
Isaac sees the American Revolution as "the first comprehensive promise to mankind of freedom and equality in this world." "It accomplished the symbolic pulling down of patriarchal monarchy as the keystone of the cosmic arch of public and private authority" (p. xi). Isaac depicts this transformation through the eyes of a Virginia planter who would remain invested in patriarchy even as he grudgingly turned his back on monarchy. Landon Carter would see his whole world turn upside down, when he wanted only half of it to do so. Imagining himself to be a firm moderate in public and private life, Carter came to embrace political revolution in Virginia even as household rebellions by his children and his slaves brought him copious headache and heartache.
Isaac is at the height of his powers in conjuring the poignancy of Carter's situation as it was swept up into escalating political tensions and household strains in the 1760s and 1770s. His great fortune is that Carter left behind a diary marvelous in quantity and quality; it is both extensive and expressive, and it is the vivid centerpiece of Isaac's microhistory. Among Early Americanists Laurel Thatcher Ulrich launched the trend of microhistory in 1990, in her case in the classic social history mode of reconstructing subaltern experience.1 There is nothing remotely subaltern about Landon Carter, owner of thousands [End Page 1240] of acres and hundreds of slaves, and Isaac is more interested in reconstructing outlook than experience. To capture that outlook, however, Isaac also reconstructs Carter's social environment, especially the lives of his adult children and his slaves, with a richness and deftness quite worthy the attention of social historians.
In the 1760s and 1770s Landon Carter struggled with children who moved away and children who stayed home, and with slaves who ran away and slaves who stayed on the plantation. Isaac painstakingly draws out the vicissitudes of all these struggles over the years of the diary, and yet he reconstructs considerably more than that: a typical year in the working life of a plantation, the contents of Carter's vast library, the practice of plantation medicine, the administration of colonial government—indeed, every dimension of Carter's world. Isaac does this in masterly fashion over the course of the book, alternately thickening the context around Carter and narrating the passage of time as the tensions and strains built up and then exploded with the outbreak of the American Revolution.
This yields a page-turning account, replete with father-son disputes, master-slave conflicts, imperial war, and colonial resistance. Isaac accomplishes one main agenda, to lend contingency to the American Revolution—to render it a history of uncertainty and anxiety. In politics, Landon Carter tried to find a middle path between obsequious loyalism and radical resistance. At home, he pursued the same instinct, softening his patriarchal authority with dollops of sensibility. Ultimately, however, Isaac must recount...