Guest Post: Sir James Wright and Jenny, his free “black servant”

Today’s guest poster is Greg Brooking (PhD, Georgia State University). His dissertation on Sir James Wright, royal governor of Georgia, is entitled, “‘My zeal for the real happiness of both Great Britain and the colonies’: The Conflicting Imperial Career of Sir James Wright.” He is the recipient of two fellowships from the David Library of the American Revolution and authored a chapter in General Nathanael Greene and the American Revolution in the South (University of South Carolina Press, 2012). He currently teaches at Kennesaw State University and Southern New Hampshire University. This is his first guest post for The Junto

I’ve just begun the arduous task of transforming my recently completed dissertation about colonial and revolutionary Georgia into a work worthy of an academic press. Part of this process, for me at least, has been to re-examine my notecards (actually an enormous Excel spreadsheet), seeking new gems, ideas, and angles. In so doing, I’ve rediscovered a tidbit that I want to further develop during the manuscript process and I humbly submit this post as a solicitation to the blog’s readers, seeking their varied and expert insights. Specifically, this tidbit relates to a caveat in the final will and testament of Sir James Wright (1716-1785), which calls for an annuity for his free “black servant,” Jenny.

This caveat is especially interesting because Wright owned more than 500 slaves and Jenny must have been counted among this number at some point. If this was the case, how was she manumitted? Why? When? Moreover, Wright’s wife died at sea some twenty years prior, and this stipulation, coupled with that fact, immediately brought to mind Thomas and Martha Jefferson and, consequently, Sally Hemings. Were their stories at all similar, or has my imagination led me astray? In order to better understand this vignette, a brief biographical sketch of Wright is required.[1]

Wright's WillSir James Wright was Georgia’s longest-tenured and final colonial governor, playing a critical role in the colony’s economic, political, and social ascent from a barely sustainable “fledgling province” to one that was, in his own words, “making a very rapid progress towards being an opulent and considerable province.”[2] Wright enjoyed his own “very rapid progress” during his two decades in Georgia, becoming the colony’s largest landholder and wealthiest citizen. In the mid-1780s, the Loyalist Claims Commission accepted his petition valued at £100,260 and awarded him £35,347 plus £1,000 per annum as a pension for his service as governor.[3]

At the outbreak of the American Revolution, the governor owned 526 slaves, dispersed among a dozen rice plantations and the governor’s mansion. He valued these slaves at approximately £53 each, totaling £27,787 in human property.[4] Lamentably, the historical record is virtually silent regarding his personal sentiments concerning slavery. His dear friend James Habersham, however, provides a tantalizing view into his mindset. “You must understand,” Habersham wrote, “that the Governor … [is] desirous if it can be conveniently done, to clothe [his] Negroes a little better than common.”[5]

There is much to untangle in this sentence, but for our purposes, it seems plausible, then, that Wright fit nicely into Eugene Genovese’s mold of the “paternalist planter”—an owner who highly valued “family and status” and adhered to a “strong code of honor.”[6] Such owners, he insisted, could defend their peculiar institution because, unlike wage employers in the North, they could offer their “employees” kindness and intimacy because they were “bound under many sacred obligations to treat [these “family” members] with humanity at all times.”[7] Of course, however, this is merely supposition and may or may not bear on the relationship between James and Jenny.

Governor Wright died at his home on Fludyer Street in southeast London on Sunday, November 20, 1785, and was interred in the North transcept at Westminster Abbey the following week. His death was reported on both sides of the Atlantic, but the most thorough appeared in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser:[8]

Wright's ObituaryOn Sunday last died Sir James Wright, Baronet, late Governor of Georgia, in the 71st year of his age. As he presided in that province for two and twenty years with distinguished ability and integrity, it seems to be a tribute justly due to his merit as a faithful servant of his king and Country. Before the commotions in America, his example of industry and skill in the cultivation and improvement of Georgia was of eminent advantage; and the faithful discharge of his executive and judicial commission was universally acknowledged, by the people over whom he presided, none of his decrees as Chancellor having ever been reversed. Under all the difficulties which attended the latter period of his government, his spirited conduct in defence of that province was singularly manifested. His loss is deeply felt and sincerely lamented by his family and friends, as well, as by his unfortunate fellow-sufferers from America, whose cause he most assiduously laboured to support and solicit; and the success which attended his active exertions in their behalf afforded him real comfort under his languishing state of health for some time before his death.

Wright’s four-page final will and testament was written in a mixed cursive hand using both secretary and italic forms and, although he penned the original, the extant document is the court official’s handwritten copy.[9] Toward the end of this ecclesiastical text, Wright directed his executors to provide an annual stipend of fifteen guineas (roughly £15 sterling) to his “black servant Jenny who is free” for the remainder of her life “in consideration of her faithful services.” Furthermore, he desired that “some of [his executors or family] will employ her as a servant or endeavor to get her a place if she chooses to go.”[10] This gift likely amounted to Jenny’s annual wage as Wright’s housekeeper and likely allowed her the greatest degree of financial independence and flexibility she had ever enjoyed.[11]

What then was the nature of the relationship between Sir James Wright, colonial Georgia’s largest slaveowner, and his free black servant, Jenny? At this point, one can only speculate as to the specifics. Did he free her upon his return to London at the conclusion of the war? Or before? Why did he free her? Why did he attempt to ensure her financial security? Was it a similar situation to that of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings or was it merely Wright’s paternalistic instinct?

________________

[1] For a full treatment of Wright’s life see, Greg Brooking, “‘My zeal for the real happiness of both Great Britain and the colonies’: The Conflicting Imperial Career of Sir James Wright,” PhD diss., Georgia State University, 2013.

[2] James Wright to the Board of Trade, 8 June 1768, in The National Archives, Kew, England, Colonial Office Papers 5/650 (hereafter, TNA, CO).

[3] Robert Mitchell, “The Losses and Compensation of Georgia Loyalists,” The Georgia Historical Society 68.2 (Summer 1984), 239-240. Mitchell has determined that Wright’s claim amounted to 11% of all Georgia claims and his reward accounted for 15% of the total awards dispersed to Georgians.

[4] James Wright Loyalist Claim. TNA, CO 5/657.

[5] James Habersham to William Knox, March 9, 1764, in James Habersham Papers, MS 337, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah.

[6] Eugene Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965), 28.  See also, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Honor and Violence in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).  Not everyone, however, agreed that paternalism existed during this period.  See James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (New York: Norton, 1998).

[7] Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), 602.

[8] Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, November 24, 1785.

[9] Sandy Boling, of the Georgia Genealogical Society, provided the transcription of Sir James Wright’s will.

[10] James Wright, Final Will and Testament, April 22, 1786, in TNA, Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions: Will Registers, PROB 11/1141/229.

[11] Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, “London History—Currency, Coinage and the Cost of Living”, Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 21 January 2014).

11 comments on “Guest Post: Sir James Wright and Jenny, his free “black servant”

  1. Joshua Horn says:

    Is it really fair to accuse Sir Wright of this based on nothing but a line of a will and speculation? Wasn’t it fairly common in a will to make special provision for valued servants/slaves?

    • I don’t think the author is “accusing” Gov. Wright of anything. He says that he doesn’t know why he did it. And, I personally read it as asking a bigger question about the making of special provisions for slaves and servants.

      • Thanks for the comment, Joshua. Michael is correct. Wright’s will is the only extant document of his mentions a slave / servant by name. I purposefully waited to read his will until the very end of researching and writing the biography and it struck me as odd (especially because there are only a few extant Wright documents of a personal nature). As a student of the revolutionary era, I couldn’t help but think of the comparison to Jefferson and that is why I posited the question.

        • Joshua Horn says:

          Greg, thanks for replying. “Accuse” was probably to harsh a word, and I agree that questions like these can be worth asking, and perhaps a blog post is a good format to do it in.

          I have just seen too many articles and books that lay out a few facts, compare it to another exceptional situation, point out the similarities, and then conclude by saying there isn’t enough evidence to know. None of that is technically false, but by going down that line of reasoning, the reader is given the impression that certain things happened by the power of suggestion, when we really have no reason to think so.

  2. Great stuff, Greg. I found a similar situation with John Kean (South Carolina Planter-Politician) whom I study. The only slave he manumitted and gave an annuity to was Celia. And, like with Wright, any and all evidence of a relationship and family connection is circumstantial, but it makes for a compelling story.

  3. Don Johnson says:

    Interesting question. It seems to me that the London setting could be key in the freedom part, if not in the provision made in the will — after the Somerset case, it would’ve been difficult (though not impossible) for Wright to keep Jenny in bondage in while residing in England, especially if he brought her over when he fled in 1776 and then took her back to Georgia when he returned in 1779. Its also possible that Jenny wasn’t originally Wright’s slave, but a refugee he took on as a servant sometime between the occupation of Savannah and the end of the war — many British officers and officials took such servants with them to England at the end of the war to save them from being sold back into slavery. Doesn’t preclude a relationship or explain the generous bequest, but might explain the manumission.

    • rgbrooking says:

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply, Don. Aside from a possible relationship, which actually seems unlikely to me, the London setting was my first thought. It is also the most likely cause of her manumission, though her inheritance is still puzzling.

  4. Fascinating story, Greg. That’s a great find.

    I generally agree with Don. Without knowing more than I do about the circumstances of Wright’s return to London in 1782, I’d say the most likely scenario is that Jenny came with him from Georgia then and became free more or less automatically—or at least so Wright thought—as a simple result of living in England after the Somerset Case.

    (I’m assuming Wright’s flight from Georgia in 1776 was irregular enough that it’s less likely Jenny could have accompanied him to England then than in 1782. But I don’t know enough about the state of his household or Georgia slavery in those years. With the knowledge I have, I’d be inclined to guess that Jenny’s service either began or resumed in Georgia between 1779 and 1782.)

    As for any special relationship … I think it’s reasonable to infer that Jenny meant more to Wright than most of his plantation slaves did, but I don’t see grounds for drawing any specific conclusions about the nature of their attachment. I can imagine a manservant who had left Georgia with Wright getting exactly the same treatment, especially if he were elderly.

  5. rgbrooking says:

    Thanks for the reply, Jonathan. I think you’re insight is spot on. The frustrating thing is that it is impossible to know much about the “state of Wright’s household” during this time. All we know is how many slaves he owned, which plantations many of them worked, that he preferred them be better clothed than was customary, and that he left Jenny a 15 pound annuity.

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