The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader

  • By Kari J. Winter
  • University of Georgia Press
  • 180 pp.

This absorbing work looks at one man’s betrayal of his innate sense of justice in pursuit of wealth.

The American family has provided fertile ground for historians and social scientists during the past few decades, but few writers approach the subject the way Kari J. Winter, a professor of American studies, does in her most recent work. Her title seems to indicate her focus will be the life of an individual. But Winter actually takes a detailed look at the evolution and devolution of the entire Prentis clan, sketching an interesting picture of early 19thcentury American family life in all its variety, complexity and contradiction.

She begins with the English Prentises, tracing the migration of William Prentis to America and his rise in the business world of Williamsburg,  Virginia. He also founded an important family in this important colony, one that Winter follows into its next generation, focusing primarily on John B. Prentis’s father, Judge Joseph Prentis. His activities as a member of Virginia’s upper crust, including his marriage to Margaret Bowdoin and the rearing of their four children who reached adulthood,  make up the bulk of her narrative in this early section.

It is their younger son, however, the John B. Prentis of the title, who begins to shape the story.  He was not like the rest of them. He broke their traditional mold of respectability, dismissed their genteel interests as extraneous, and shunned the careers acceptable to his class. John intended to become his own man, a self-made one if necessary. He persuaded his father to let him blaze a unique path and became apprenticed to a Philadelphia builder/architect. John learned the ropes the hard hands-on way, and after his father’s death returned to Virginia to take up the building trade in Richmond, one of the fastest growing cities in the South.

As Winter explores John’s complicated relationships with older brother Joseph and two sisters, she exposes the great sadness that clouded all their lives. None of these people was very happy, despite their privileged upbringing. In John’s case, however, it was not for want of trying, though his efforts too often relied on the false maxim that enough money could buy anything, including joyfulness. He did not like books and found tedious the education that made his brother a successful attorney. Rather, John at first preferred prosperous artisan work and then lucrative business arrangements that promised wealth and status.  Ultimately he chose the slave trade as his primary occupation, a decision seemingly incompatible with his earlier anti-slavery sentiments. This sordid business meant a steady income bounteous enough to expand his property holdings and improve his standard of living, but it also soiled him in the estimation of polite Southern society.

Winter spends considerable time analyzing how the South and North perceived the slave trader and the reasons for those perceptions. She explains how most Southerners could easily justify owning other human beings but then condemn the slave trader, making him a scapegoat for their own,  often subconscious, guilt and remorse over the peculiar institution. In the world Winter limns, slave owners of the elite class denigrated slave traders from the same reflexes that caused them to disparage anyone beneath their class. It was easy to judge such people as coarse and squalid and thus not be surprised when they did coarse, squalid things.  Winter shows the hypocrisy in this belief: most slave owners not only bought but also sold slaves to improve finances or manage cash flow. The ability of the morally compromised for nuance, however, can achieve miracles of rationalization. The man who made his primary living from such transactions was a different creature, the elite Southerner insisted, and thus his behavior could bear everyone’s guilt over the South’s peculiar institution.

Within that moral maze, John Prentis became irony personified. He was the self-made man he set out to be, affluent enough to help his proud older brother, but he never achieved respectability. His abashed family would take his money but could not stand his presence, a situation that deeply wounded Prentis and made him increasingly resentful. He became a Jacksonian and spouted the rhetoric of democracy with evangelical zeal, a full-throated proponent of the common man as a specimen of humanity clearly superior to effete upper classes, as long as he was white.

Kari Winter has written extensively on slaves and people who owned them and thus brings an extraordinary expertise to this fascinating subject. Her narrative approach nicely illuminates the complexities of race, gender and masculinity in an antebellum southern family. Yet readers are likely to find extensive discussions of the modern historiography of slavery slow going, and the attempts to cram the square peg of the Prentis family into the round hole of Postmodernism tend to be tiresome.

Winter obviously aims for a scholarly audience, but professional historians will find troubling the lack of evidence supporting many of the author’s conclusions. For example, when she discusses the part of William Prentis’s will that listed female slaves, she somehow sees it laying “bare the libidinal fantasies that slaveholders commonly invested in their ability to fix the value of other human beings, to possess and enjoy them.” This will certainly be news to readers who have seen no evidence of William Prentis’s having any fantasies, libidinal or otherwise. It likely would be news to William Prentis. When Winter remarks that John B. Prentis in childhood enjoyed playing with slave children, she perceives nascent egalitarianism but mainly concludes that “he may have found pleasure in the presence of playmates over whom he could exercise tyranny with impunity.”

Again, we have no evidence that John as a child felt like either a democrat or a despot. Indeed, many studies of slavery describe the curious traditions of desegregated play that mingled white and black children up to the time they reached a certain age, that point being a rigid dividing line that marked the end of childhood and sent people into separate and extremely different worlds. If there really is a deeper meaning to this common occurrence, it would be valuable to know the method of determining it and from what evidence. If there is something sexual in a cold inventory of people as property, it would be fascinating to have it explained from a clinical perspective rather than an intuitive one. Instead, we have the vague sense that Emerson’s warning is pertinent: “In analyzing history do not be too profound, for often the causes are quite superficial.”

Although repeated speculations require the reader to coax the Prentis story out of a narrative whose digressions into theory multiply and whose techniques tend to reduce individuals to types, there is much to like in this book. Scholars of slavery and of those caught in its grip, whether white or black, will find it a welcome addition to the literature. The story of middling, urban slave owners has not received enough attention, a condition that Winter’s work starts to correct.

David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler are the authors of Henry Clay: The Essential American (Random House, 2010). Their website is

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