The most interesting thing about Richard Dunn’s “intergenerational study” of slave life in Mount Airy and Mesopotamia plantations of Virginia and Jamaica is its incompleteness. As Dunn notes, A Tale of Two Plantations is a narrative without “a proper opening or a proper conclusion.” His source base begins relatively arbitrarily with a pair of masters who sought to improve their record keeping and ends with the institution of slavery itself. This is tragic, of course, for our knowledge of the lives of the enslaved persons of Mesopotamia and Mount Airy are circumscribed by the ability of whites to track them. In Jamaica, that proves troubling in freedom while in Virginia and Alabama, thanks to better census taking, the lives of the families of Mount Airy are much easier to recover. These sources, of course, mirror the experience of slavery itself.
When Walter Johnson published Soul by Soul in 2001, he unleashed a critical analysis of the inner life of slavery. More than just an exploration of the plantation complex, or even the indignities and tragedies of slavery, Johnson elucidated how the buying and selling of black bodies affected (in Johnson’s argument, corrupted) the participants in slavery. Johnson had identified a critical hole in the historiography. And now, Richard S. Dunn’s newest contribution to the scholarly discourse, A Tale of Two Plantations, compares life at two plantations—Mt. Airy (MD) and Mesopotamia (Jamaica)—to understand how slavery affected these two plantations, and conversely, how conditions on these plantations affected the enslaved.
I’ve admired Alfred Young’s wonderful, if unwieldy, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (New York: Knopf, 2004) since I first encountered the book in an undergraduate classroom a decade ago. Young’s biography of Sampson, which covers the life, career, and memory of this remarkable woman who “passed” as a man in the Continental Army for seventeen months, shares much in common with its intellectual sibling, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party—the detective-like level of historical research, the concern with the constantly shifting nature of memory, the drive to capture the life of a common person who left an uncommon historical legacy. New concerns, such as the performative and unstable nature of gender, emerge in Masquerade as well. My most striking impression from this latest reread, however, is just how much the book is about the limits of the American Revolution. Continue reading
How does an ordinary person win a place in history?
Such is the line that Alfred Young opened his classic The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999). In a way, the phrase captures much of his overall scholarship. Other contributions to this roundtable have/will cover(ed) how he did this in his influential books, essays, and edited collection. In my post, I want to focus on how he translated his approach into a work that is probably read more than any of his other books. Indeed, Shoemaker and the Tea Party is a popular book in the classroom, both undergrad and graduate, since it tells a fascinating tale with an important message. Continue reading
This week, The Junto is dedicated to reconsidering the legacy of Al Young. Young died two years ago this week, but we scheduled the timetable unaware of that coincidence. Instead, we originally scheduled it to coincide with Pope’s Day, a topic many of us associate with Al Young. After his passing, the internet was filled with many personal and heartfelt memoriams from colleagues and former students. But this week, my fellow Juntoists and I will reconsider the legacy of Al Young and a body of work with few equals in the history of early American scholarship. Continue reading
Many of us have been there. Sitting in front of our computers, we fret over how we will find the time and funding to examine important manuscript sources at faraway archives. And then, a few keystrokes later, we find that those sources are available in published form. Relief floods over us, replacing anxiety. But should we really be so relieved?
James H. Merrell’s recent article in Early American Studies asks exactly this question. Entitled “‘Exactly as they appear’: Another Look at the Notes of a 1766 Treason Trial in Poughkeepsie, New York, with Some Musings on the Documentary Foundations of Early American History,” it suggests that we should not be so quick to assume that published versions of manuscript sources faithfully reproduce the originals. 
The ratification of the Federal Constitution is a notoriously difficult historical event to categorize. On the one hand, it is a watershed moment; the creation of a consolidated federal government with extensive power is a clear break with the immediate post-Independence traditions of American governance. Yet at the same time, it is traditionally seen as the final achievement of a revolutionary generation—the fulfillment of the ideals of the Revolution. Continue reading