Slavery and Revolution


Anxious Patriarchs

By Christer Petley |

Kathleen BrownThis post is an expanded version of a comment I made today on the Junto Blog Summer Book Club discussion about Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs. The conversation, led by Joseph Adelman is about the final chapter of the book, on the ‘anxious patriarchs’ of the eighteenth-century Virginian elite. It got me thinking about how the anxieties of this slaveholding elite were related to those of the Jamaican planter class, and – more specifically – to the various worries that Simon Taylor expressed in his letters.

Brown’s prescient focus on emotions struck me as interesting. The history of the emotions has come to the fore in recent years. (See, for instance, the AHR Conversation from December 2012). Brown’s work on what historians are now calling an ‘emotional community’ among Virginia planters therefore seems ahead of its time. And it is quite right to zone in on anxiety as the leitmotif in the emotional lives of this elite. Planters were, almost by definition, uneasy creatures – apprehensive about slave uprisings and other threats to their status emanating from within their households or from across the Atlantic.

I wondered how far the careful definitions of paternalism and connections to the Founding Fathers position this not so much as a ‘Virginia book’ (a phrase used in some earlier posts in the Junto Book Club) but as a ‘North America book’. The question of paternalism has been framed by Eugene Genovese’s influential definitions of master-slave relations in the Antebellum South, and it is understandable to want to link a study like this to a discussion of those men of the Virginia elite who shaped the American Revolution. Both of those things help make this a book focused on understanding family, slavery and politics in the region that became the USA.

I have been reading Brown from a different perspective – thinking about Caribbean comparisons. Arguably the real catbird seat in the eighteenth century Atlantic empire was the one occupied by the Caribbean planter class – a wealthier elite than the Virginian and every bit as anxious. It strikes me that as well as thinking forward from Good Wives – towards the Revolution and US South – we can usefully think ‘sideways’, about how this book might serve up suggestions for a further widening of our understanding of colonial planter elites in the eighteenth century . . . including explorations of the gendered social orders, class tensions and emotional landscapes created by planters in other parts of colonial America.

The threat of slave rebellions was more acute in the Caribbean than in Virginia, as were the risks of losing everything to a hurricane or dying from yellow fever. I am not sure though whether the sorts of domestic or political anxieties that Brown discusses in relation to Virginia planters were so much of a consideration for their Jamaican counterparts until the final quarter of the eighteenth century – when metropolitan opposition to planter practices became more apparent. Neither were the men of the Jamaican elite so able to construct an identity based firmly around rural estates – few of them, even those who were resident in the Caribbean, chose to live permanently on semi-industrialised sugar plantations in rural parishes with huge enslaved majorities.

Books and articles by several scholars, including Vincent Brown, Christopher Brown, Trevor Burnard and Andrew O’Shaughnessy, have already improved our understanding of Jamaican and other West Indian slaveholders in relation to their North American counterparts. Could further work on the gendered social order, class tensions and emotional landscapes created by colonial American planters help us towards a better understanding of the eventual fall of Caribbean and Southern slaveholding elites during the nineteenth century? The division of the planter lobby into loyalists and patriots in 1776 was certainly important in those processes of decline and defeat, but planters also failed to defend their vision of the imperial or American future, and their precarious economic and domestic arrangements – the sorts of things that Brown examines in her book – did not manage to withstand the combined pressures of slave resistance, abolitionist scrutiny and federal/imperial scepticism.

My thoughts, having read Brown’s last chapter, are therefore focused on how the practices and actions of anxious patriarchs in eighteenth-century Virginia and Jamaica helped lay the foundations for the fall of their class in the nineteenth century.