Book Review: The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader

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One of the most striking contradictions regarding the founding of the American republic is that many of the very men who boldly proclaimed freedom and equality were themselves owners of human property. The issue of slavery festered throughout most of America’s first century, often acknowledged but never resolved, until finally a bitter and bloody civil war put an end to it.

John Brooke Prentis (1788–1848), an architect, builder, contractor, and slave trader in Richmond, Virginia, was born into a socially prominent family, yet identified himself with the working class. He denounced slavery as a young man, yet became a slave owner himself, and eventually made his fortune as a slave trader, buying slaves in Virginia and Maryland and selling them in Alabama, Mississippi, and elsewhere in the lower South. His life epitomized an inherent contradiction in early America: a nation dedicated to human equality with an economy based largely on slave labor.

Kari J. Winter, a professor of American studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, illuminates that contradictory life in The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader.

The Prentis Family of Williamsburg

John B. Prentis was the grandson of William Prentis, who was brought to America from London as an indentured servant at the age of 15 or 16. After serving his seven-year indenture to a merchant in Williamsburg, Virginia, William Prentis went on to manage his former master’s store, eventually becoming the principal shareholder of the firm. The Prentis Store, as it became called, was one of the most profitable businesses in the British North American colonies, and made William Prentis a very wealthy man.

The descendants of William Prentis, if not quite gentry, enjoyed an elevated status in their society; and they cemented that status by marrying into many of the most prominent families of Virginia, including the Geddies, the Carters, and the Tuckers. John B. Prentis could have emulated his brother and his uncles and become a lawyer, a politician, even a merchant; that he chose instead to be a laborer was the first of the contradictions that marked his life.

The Life and Values of John B. Prentis

Kari J. Winter allows her subject to tell his own story to a large extent, through numerous passages from his letters, most frequently those to and from his older brother Joseph. The letters reveal a man in deep conflict about the life he has chosen and the society he lives in. Winter writes, “As a child surrounded by black laborers, some of them highly skilled, John early on developed a habit of ‘working with the blacks’ that displeased his father’s sense of propriety and social order. John perceptively pinpointed the ethics of labor as the heart of the question of slavery. . . . John understood that the presence of violently exploited laborers poisoned the social meaning of work” (p. 54).

John’s understanding of the inherent evil of slavery, however, was eventually subordinated to his growing desire for wealth. Winter writes, “He inhabited toxic contradictions: to become a ‘self-made man,’ he exploited (but denied exploiting) the labor of un-men—that is women, apprentices, and slaves. . . . He admitted without apology, ‘Money is my object and study’” (pp. 80–81).

The Final Contradiction

In May of 1848, just four months before his death, John B. Prentis drew up his last will and testament. When it was made public, Winter writes, “Shock waves rippled through Richmond” (p. 158). John left his entire estate (after the payment of any bills) to his wife Catherine—not surprising, perhaps, given that the couple were childless. What shocked Richmond (and the other Prentises) was John’s expressed wish that Catherine, at her own death, would bequeath all her estate to Emily McCabe, a girl of 15 when John died, whose mother had died when she was four and whose father had thereafter abandoned her to John and Catherine’s care. To make things unmistakably clear, John added, “I want none of my connexions [relatives] or of yours, to have any of the fruits of our labor . . .” (p. 158).

John also expressed his wish that Catherine, upon her death, would emancipate and leave varying amounts of money to several of his slaves. Winter concludes: “Whether driven by pride, jealousy, and anger to repudiate his siblings’ claims on him or by guilt, compassion, or affection to reward a few favorite slaves, John Prentis had opened a space in his mind where he stopped imagining slaves as currency and started imagining them as human beings deserving of freedom and purchasing power” (p. 167).

The World of John B. Prentis

Winter uses the life of John B. Prentis as a framework within which to display the larger society of the antebellum South with regard to the issue of slavery. She does not whitewash the violent racism and sexism at the root of that society, but by telling one man’s story, she establishes the context of American slavery in a fresh and enlightening way. And she reminds her readers that the American dreams of John B. Prentis are still alive and still in conflict: “A culture that chooses property rights over human rights, the dream of wealth over the dream of justice, is destined for nightmares of infinite violence” (p. 189).