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  • The Vibrant World and Tragic Death of Thomas Jeremiah
  • Daniel C. Littlefield (bio)
Emma Hart . Building Charleston: Town and Society in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. xii + 274 pp. Figures, tables, maps, illustrations, graph, tabular appendix, notes, bibliography and index. $45.00.
William R. Ryan . The World of Thomas Jeremiah: Charles Town on the Eve of the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. x + 268 pp. Figures, maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, and index. $49.95.

These two books in some ways exhibit antithetical trends: one places Charleston, South Carolina, within an Atlantic setting, reversing a practice that sees the city as subordinate to the surrounding staple economy and dependent on the plantations for its growth, character, and development—viewing it instead within an imperial framework as similar to other provincial cities within the British Empire. Charleston is portrayed here as subject to the same kinds of problems and catastrophes and as a participant in the same current of improvements. The other book focuses on the social environment of the city, describing its atmosphere on the eve of revolution and showing how a conceivably innocent man was sacrificed on the altar of racial domination. In another sense, both books are part of a common theme of removing events in Charleston beyond the parochial and placing them on a larger stage that, in the one case, establishes connections between the urban history of a colonial locale and others in the British world and, in the other, simultaneously unites and distinguishes revolutionary struggle in South Carolina with and from the conflict farther North. Several historians in the recent past—such as Gary B. Nash (The Forgotten Fifth, 2006) and Walter Edgar (Partisans and Redcoats, 2001)—have attempted to shift attention from New England towards the South in their narratives of the American Revolution, and they have variously emphasized or de-emphasized the racial component of the conflict there, depending on their ideological perspective and what they were trying to achieve.1 Ryan operates out of this historiograhical context. He wishes to restore race to the equation, reacting in particular to Don Higginbotham (p. 8), [End Page 203] in an attempt to show African Americans as active participants whose activities often benefitted the British in the upheaval. In this way, he intersects with another historiographical current that places African Americans within a long story of individual initiative and active resistance; and, therefore, Ryan's book is not as pathbreaking as Hart's may be. But Ryan's is distinctive because it focuses on a free black rather than slaves and because it adopts a day-to-day, or rather month-to-month, account of the tragedy. This method could lend dramatic effect but serves instead to diffuse by drawing attention away from Jeremiah towards other events. This is partly because Jeremiah is dead by chapter three, but the story goes on for four chapters more and is therefore preeminently about the world after Thomas Jeremiah than the world he lived in. Ryan intends to use Jeremiah as a lens through which to view black actions and white apprehensions, but he does it in such a way that Jeremiah becomes almost an appendage to the story. He early ceases to be a central character or protagonist who moves the story along. Because we know the ending and because the facts of Jeremiah's life are few, the way one constructs the account is crucial; while Ryan's purpose is admirable, his strategy is deficient as a showcase for Jeremiah. In that regard, a more effective approach is indicated by the almost simultaneous appearance of another book on the topic that has more narrative force. J. William Harris' The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man's Encounter With Liberty (2009) places Jeremiah at the center of the tale and situates other characters, most of whom Ryan also considers—Henry Laurens, Lord William Campbell, Christopher Gadsden—as satellites around him. Harris is interested in individuals. He portrays a human tragedy and simultaneously demonstrates how human fears and failings could produce an atmosphere in which tragedy becomes almost inevitable but readily comprehensible. Ryan is interested in movements...


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pp. 203-210
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