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  • Amelioration and Empire: Progress and Slavery in the Plantation Americas by Christa Dierksheide
  • Douglas R. Egerton (bio)

Slavery, Amelioration, Colonization, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Dew, John Hartwell Cocke, Henry Laurens, Bryan Edwards, John Gladstone, Denmark Vesey

Amelioration and Empire: Progress and Slavery in the Plantation Americas. By Christa Dierksheide. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015. Pp. 279. Cloth, $45.00.)

By the day the enslaved blacksmith Gabriel swung from a Richmond gibbet in the fall of 1800, it was all too clear that slave societies in the [End Page 407] American South and the British Caribbean would survive the ideals of the age of revolution. But if these systems were to be permanent, many planters believed, they required reformation, so that bondmen might have less cause to sharpen scythes into swords, and so that their own estates could become more profitable. In discussing the first decades of the nineteenth century, most scholars have depicted these planter pamphleteers as reactionaries who grew to condemn egalitarian principles, or as hypocrites who continued to speak the language of liberty while practicing something very different. By comparison, Christa Dierksheide argues that they were modern, enlightened agriculturalists who believed that gradual improvement and scientific adjustments were the engines of American expansion and a re-invigorated British empire. To demonstrate the many ways these men understood the process of amelioration, Dierkensheide starts in the Chesapeake and then moves south, delving into the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Dew, John Hartwell Cocke, Henry Laurens, Bryan Edwards, and John Gladstone.

If Dierksheide does not provide fresh insights on the thought and behavior of Jefferson—his views on race and slavery being well-trod ground—the comparisons with his fellow Virginians prove illuminating. Whereas Cocke, a dedicated colonizationist, agreed with Jefferson that slavery created a perpetual state of war between whites and blacks, Dew insisted that amelioration could create a domesticated slavery beneficial to both races. As did most late antebellum proslavery theorists, Dew argued that slavery was a critical step in the path from barbarism to civility. Although all three hinted that at some future date their state would be free of both slavery and African Americans, Dew assumed that the market and the internal slave trade would whiten Virginia, while Cocke advanced a plan to levy a tax of thirty cents on each white citizen to finance the removal of six thousand black Virginians each year. Jefferson also professed to believe that removal of slaves in the Southeast could pave the way to westward expansion, although in practice his “empire of liberty” was one of slaveholders.

Whatever else they were, Jefferson, Cocke, and Dew were typical white Virginians, struggling (and failing) to resolve the contradictions in their world. Henry Laurens, however, was a most atypical Carolinian. Although his riches were derived from his early years as an importer of Africans from Bance Island, during the Revolution his son John helped to persuade him that only by arming blacks could they save their state from British occupation. When the proposal, backed by the Continental [End Page 408] Congress, came to a vote in the South Carolina legislature, the final tally was 100 to 12, with Henry in the minority. That fact, unmentioned in this study, suggests just how out of step Laurens’s advocacy of amelioration through emancipation was in his own state, a slave society that essentially voted to lose its independence rather than win it as a free society. Dierksheide concedes this point in her conclusion to this section, yet even then she argues that “Laurens could not have predicted” his failure to persuade his countrymen (121). Given the beating he took by the assembly in 1779, almost anybody else could have.

Dierksheide is on firmer ground in her subsequent discussion of how the vast majority of Carolina planters committed themselves to amelioration within the system of slavery. As she notes, their hopes of domesticating slavery were shaken by Denmark Vesey’s 1822 plot and allegations that hundreds of bondmen—many of them domestic servants—had conspired to kill their masters. Although the American Colonization Society never gained many adherents among those Carolinians who wanted more, rather than fewer, black laborers in the...


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pp. 407-410
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