- An American Planter: Stephen Duncan of Antebellum Natchez and New York
Martha Jane Brazy's deceptively brief biography of Stephen Duncan offers a well-researched, engagingly written account of a prominent American [End Page 418] planter and entrepreneur. Duncan proves an intriguing figure who deserves our attention: a Pennsylvania-born entrepreneur who, at the age of twenty-one, moved to the Mississippi Territory, where he "combined the seemingly opposed worlds of high finance and capitalism with southern agriculture and slavery—all of which he made compatible through his nationalistic economic, political, and social practices." As Brazy asserts, Duncan's career "shatters the image of the large, insular planter who solely focused on agriculture and his slaves while assuming the role of the premodern lord of the southern manor" (1–2). His life tells us much about economic booms and busts in the Old Southwest, about Jacksonian era politics, and about the world of an antebellum Southern planter. Duncan's determination to expand his wealth and power compelled him to diversify his interests and to maintain important kinship and economic networks in both the North and the South. He thus resists easy sectional pigeonholing. Duncan "developed a more complex and hybrid set of loyalties that allowed him to mesh the distinct worlds of section and region that others had created. His life brings into focus," Brazy persuasively demonstrates, "the fluidity of personal, regional, economic, political, and social identities during a period in American history when sectional lines and interests are usually assumed to have been sharply drawn" (3). Stephen Duncan was, according to Brazy, an "American planter."
Brazy engages the historiography on planters most explicitly when discussing Duncan as a slave master. Despite vigorous scholarly debate and challenge, she argues, Eugene D. Genovese's interpretation of paternalism still holds currency. Paternalism, according to Genovese, governed master-slave relations and insisted on "mutual obligations" that forced masters to recognize, if only implicitly, the humanity of their slaves. "An examination of slavery under Stephen Duncan," Brazy asserts, "challenges this framework, however." An absentee planter, "Duncan did not practice paternalism to any significant degree, nor did he ever indicate that he 'implicitly recognized the slaves' humanity.'" In Duncan's world, "slaves were simply cogs in a larger (and largely capitalistic) machine." Indeed, Brazy finds it difficult to imagine "that slaves in such a regime . . . would feel any obligations to or identify with their enslavers." Brazy's account of Duncan certainly does not overturn Genovese's model, but it does remind readers that "large, sweeping models," however useful, "cannot take into account the extensive variables, particularly human variables, that comprised and shaped" the antebellum slave system (132). Perhaps more important, it demonstrates that antebellum planters operated in a capitalist world. "Duncan's worldview was grounded [End Page 419] in economics," Brazy concludes, "and slaves were simply economic units." The lives of his slaves "were thus regulated by the needs of the Duncan economic empire" (132–33).
Brazy briefly examines the slave communities that resided on Duncan's plantations. Here, too, she weighs in on the historiographical debates that center on the nature of slave communities. Brazy acknowledges the longevity of Herbert Gutman's conclusions about slave families. Taking their cue from Gutman, many scholars argue that "the dominant form of living arrangements among slaves was the two-parent nuclear household with children and that slave families experienced stability." Evidence from the Duncan plantations challenges this interpretation, however. Brazy contends that slave family structures on the Duncan plantations more closely resemble those Brenda Stevenson examined in Louden County, Virginia, where "'slave families . . . essentially were not nuclear and did not derive from long-term marriages." In Virginia, as on the Duncan plantations, "the most discernable ideal for their principal kinship organization was a malleable extended family" (136). Brazy forms her conclusions about the slave families on Duncan's plantations largely from slave lists. She acknowledges in an endnote that "extant records do not indicate specific slave marriages" (198). Absent from her discussion is testimony from...