Lofty Dreams-Dark Necessities: Piedmont Planters and the Commodification of the Enslaved in EarlyNational Virginia

Grace, Matthew, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Edelson, S. Max
Taylor, Alan

This article explores the circumstances surrounding Virginia Piedmont planters and their decisions to adopt various human commodification strategies in the early national period. Coming out of the American Revolution, Virginia’s Piedmont gentry, in general, expressed an exclusionary racist antislavery position. Men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Hartwell Cocke believed slavery an evil harmful to Blacks, whites, and the overall Republic. They hoped the South might gradually emancipate its slaves and resettle them far away from white society one day. Unfortunately, post-Revolution economic and political forces undermined the status and financial health of the plantocracy. Struggling to pay debts and remain economically efficient, the Piedmont planters came to view their bondspeople as commodities rather than dependent laborers. To hold on to their plantations and possibly one day improve the happiness of their enslaved people, Jefferson, Cocke, Monroe, and Madison chose to mortgage, lease out, and sell their human property. With these commodification strategies, the antislavery Piedmont planters inadvertently contributed to the proslavery momentum of the day by helping to further entrench slavery in Virginia and popularize modes of commoditizing the enslaved among capitalist slaveholders of the next generation.

MA (Master of Arts)
Commodification, antislavery, proslavery
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