Yankees and their slaves
By Fergus M. Bordewich
June 10, 2013
For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England, By Allegra di Bonaventura, Liveright, 441 pp., $29.95
Slavery was never as simple as our archetypes would have it. The image still lingers of men and women on a Deep South plantation, bent in broiling heat, plucking at rows of low-growing cotton plants, stuffing the harvest into long sacks, plucking and stuffing, plucking and stuffing … In fact, the cotton country of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana developed late in the history of industrial slavery, just a generation or two before the Civil War. But slavery in other forms was all-American from the earliest years of settlement: slaves performed just about every kind of unskilled, semiskilled, and occasionally highly skilled work that there was to do—as watermen, metalworkers, blacksmiths, long-distance haulers, valets, nursemaids, cooks, waiters, barbers, and of course farmhands.
Moreover, slavery was not just a southern phenomenon but a ubiquitous part of northern life, too, until well after the American Revolution. In New York, even 20 years after the Revolutionary War, the number of slaves was increasing, as growing affluence enabled more families to acquire them as a form of conspicuous display.
In recent years, scholars have chipped away at the stereotypes. Graham Russell Hodges’s 1999 Root & Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey 1613–1863 delineated the wide use of slave labor in the colonies and, later, in the states. Jill Lepore’s 2006 New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan deftly unpeeled an alleged plot by New York slaves to torch the city, and Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s 2009 Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend illuminated the precarious life of a black couple in Vermont, where it was long assumed that slavery had never existed.
To this growing body of literature Allegra di Bonaventura has added an impressively researched and fine-grained account of the intimately intertwined lives of several families and their slaves who lived in the New London, Connecticut, area from the late 17th century to the mid-18th century. Her account is rooted primarily in a close reading of the remarkable diary of Joshua Hempstead, a shipwright, farmer, and justice of the peace who recorded, sparely, his daily activities and personal encounters over almost 50 years. From the diary, court records (early New Londoners were a litigious lot!), and other period sources, di Bonaventura teases out a tangled skein of intersecting lives: in addition to the yeoman Hempstead, an assortment of hardscrabble farmers, churchmen high and low, a pocket of semiheretical “Rogerene” zealots, sundry “gentlemen” (including a black sheep of the illustrious Livingston family), several snobbish Winthrops, and the enslaved Jackson family. Less clearly visible are the remnants of shattered Algonquin tribes who peppered the coastal towns, some enslaved, others free, mostly working as servants or at other unskilled jobs, partially Christianized, but not quite members of the white communities in which they lived.
All of them struggled to survive in a world where measles epidemics swept away hundreds of people at a time (Hempstead lost two otherwise healthy adult sons in one week), children died young and suddenly, mothers were lost in childbirth, sailors fell overboard and disappeared, and enslaved families were abruptly separated with scarcely a thought by their owners. Di Bonaventura’s lucid prose sometimes reaches something close to poetry. Describing the Connecticut landscape, for instance, she writes,
Stone walls were just one facet of a deeply embedded stone culture that engaged New Englanders like Joshua and [his slave] Adam throughout their lives. For men who worked the land, as most did, stones were a constant
refrain to the day’s labor, punctuating the pitch of the shovel, the thrust of the hoe, and the steer of the plow. … All around, stone trimmed the edges of New Englanders’ domestic environment, providing a last bulwark between the destructive forces of nature and the decay of less permanent materials.
Her account is mostly preoccupied with the quotidian events of life in what was then a small community. But the larger world sometimes impinges. Her account of the First Great Awakening, the spiritual firestorm that hit North America in the mid-1740s, is particularly vivid. In a matter of months, hundreds of parishioners flooded out of mainstream Congregational churches to mass outdoor evangelical revivals, where roaring preachers hurled their rivals’ printed sermons into bonfires and exhorted swooning crowds of men and women. On one occasion, a preacher became so emotionally agitated by his own religious passion, Hempstead noted in his diary, that he tore off his “plush breeches” and cast them into the flames before his startled congregation.
Di Bonaventura’s portrayal of Yankee slavery is acute and sensitive, without being sentimental. Although slavery was a reality of New England life, it was not as fundamental to the region’s economy, or to whites’ sense of their own identity, as it later became in the South. Few New Englanders owned more than a couple of slaves, and often just one, who, like Adam Jackson, lived in the household and worked alongside whites at the same tasks. “If Adam was forever an elusive asset on a running balance sheet, he was also his master’s most consistent companion in his home and his work,” di Bonaventura writes. Indeed, Adam, though enslaved his entire life, was frequently put in charge of less skilled white workers, including Hempstead’s grandson.
Adam—who died around 1764, a few years after Hempstead—remains elusive, but di Bonaventura unearthed troves of material on his parents, John and Joan Jackson, who eventually won their freedom. It’s an illuminating tale. With the aid of friendly, well-connected whites, John waged a series of lawsuits through the colonial courts, which eventually ruled in his favor. Against longer odds, he won Joan’s freedom as well, though he failed to gain liberty for Adam, whose owner simply refused to relinquish him. For the Jacksons, freedom may have been exhilarating, but it did not mean ease or security: they were acknowledged as members of their community but never rose out of poverty.
That John even as a slave was able to lodge lawsuits, let alone win them, makes clear that although colonial New Englanders accepted slavery, they did not as a matter of principle discount either the humanity or the legal rights of blacks. As an institution, however, slavery in New England did not really start its decline until the 1770s, under the influence of Enlightenment values, and later Revolutionary ideology, with its spate of legislation, judicial decisions, constitutional measures, and individual manumissions that permanently disabled the institution by the end of the century. That said, gradual emancipation, though accomplished peacefully, left thousands of black Americans still enslaved for decades. Connecticut did not formally abolish slavery until 1848, just 13 years before the Civil War.
For Adam’s Sake is well peopled with men, women, and children for whom slavery is but one aspect of an economically challenging and morally complex world, but the labored odyssey of the Jackson family conveys an implicit—di Bonaventura is never polemical—message that the American future bends ultimately, if not always clearly, toward the wavering light of freedom. In telling the Jacksons’ story, she has recovered from centuries of oblivion people of colonial America’s lowest order, restoring them not just to history, but also to their individuality and humanity. It is a mighty achievement.
Fergus M. Bordewich is the author, most recently, of America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union. His next book, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government, will be published in February.