Elite Single Women and the Business of Slavery in Revolutionary and Early National Virginia

Garrett, Alexandra, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Taylor, Alan, AS-History, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines how elite feme sole slave-owners during the American Revolutionary and early National periods managed their property—especially the people they enslaved and their slave-manned enterprises—in the nation’s largest slave state, Virginia. Already subjugated to men in a patriarchal society that denied married women the right to control their own earnings or property, feme soles relied on the labor of their communities' most subjugated peoples to enrich themselves as businesswomen. Chapter 1 examines the claims that Virginia women (mostly widows) submitted under their own name to the Loyalist Claims Commission. Britain’s Parliament created the Loyalist Claims Commission in 1783 to provide recompense to Loyalist refugees who had to flee America during the American Revolution. Loyalist Virginian women deployed a variety of strategies—many gendered—to support their cases in their claims. These women conveyed more specific information about their estates’ “lost” enslaved people than they did about their non-human property, signifying women’s intimate and commercial relationships to the people they and their husbands enslaved. Relatedly, the number of enslaved people a woman claimant or her family had owned—not her level of wealth—determined her ability to describe or enumerate her enslaved people. The number of people whom these women had enslaved and “lost” was positively correlated with the amount they requested (in pounds sterling) from the Commission. Chapter 2 examines the commercial activities of Catharine Flood McCall, the largest female slave-owner in Essex County, Virginia at the turn of the nineteenth century. "Kate" McCall was born in Tappahannock, Virginia, fled with her Loyalist father to Britain during the American Revolution, and returned afterwards to become a feme sole business-woman and slave-owner. She was a distinctive woman for her time because she was the sole heiress to a large estate, never married, and founded two nail factories with her father in Alexandria and Richmond. Her correspondence with one of her site managers demonstrates her intimate knowledge of her enslaved people and her strict and active managerial style. I examine her family and business relationships and suggest motivations for her lifelong singledom. Chapter 3 compares Kate McCall's education, slave mastery, and enterprising with those of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington and Annie Henry Christian. I examine how these three elite, white Virginia women learned the "business of slavery" (during their upbringing, marriages, and widowhood), which they then enacted in urban and agricultural settings. As feme soles, these women personally managed their own or late husbands’ estates even while relying upon white site managers’ help; and dipped into agricultural management more (as compared to overseeing domestic management while married/feme coverts.) Chapter 4 analyzes the nail-making industry in Richmond, Virginia in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. I contextualize Kate McCall’s enterprise within the nascent industrial labor economy of Richmond, Virginia. I show that the McCall’s main competitor in the nail market was the newly opened, state-funded Virginia State Penitentiary (opened in 1800). I analyze competing forms of unfree labor—McCall's enslaved labor versus the Penitentiary's prison labor—to argue that the Penitentiary undersold all other nail-sellers in market by 1815. This finding calls into question Jefferson's promise that private enterprise would flourish in the new country.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Early American History, Slavery, Women, Gender, Virginia, American Revolution, Industrial enterprise, Eighteenth century, Nineteenth century, Masters and mistresses
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