The diary of a Revolution-era slaveholder

Diaries offer an intimate glimpse into real lives and also help map the contours of life in the past - its customs, concerns, manners, and events. Revolutionary America's most intriguing diarist was Virginian Landon Carter. In "Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom," Australian scholar Rhys Isaac explores and explains the fascinating journals that Carter kept between 1752 and his death in 1778.

Born in 1710, Carter grew up in one of Virginia's leading families. In 1719, upon the death of his father, Robert "King" Carter, Landon inherited several Tidewater plantations covering tens of thousands of acres and eventually worked by some 400 slaves.

He lived at Sabine Hall, a magisterial estate overlooking the Rappahannock River in Richmond County, about 60 miles north of Williamsburg, where he quickly emerged as one of the region's civic and social leaders. He served as justice of the peace, militia colonel, and parish vestryman. In 1752, he began 18 years of service in Virginia's House of Burgesses.

Carter's three wives all died young, having borne eight children. In 1756, the triple widower convinced his eldest son, Robert Wormeley Carter, to bring his new bride to live at Sabine Hall. Son and daughter-in-law helped Carter manage the social responsibilities of his high station, yet they also proved to be vexing companions. Carter came to despise his "devilish" daughter-in-law. "I see in her," he declared, "the cause of all the ill treatment my son has given me ever since his marriage."

Isaac deftly uses Carter's tormented, self-justifying journal entries to explore his turbulent psyche and illuminate the distinctive mental world within which Carter and other Chesapeake planters operated. Carter emerges as a character of Shakespearean complexity and proportion: powerful, vulnerable, vain, and enmeshed in familial distrust and disappointment. His diary served as a catalyst for reflection, as a therapeutic release for his overflowing emotions, and as a historical record. He also used it as a tool for expressing frustrations with his family members, deliberately making it accessible for their furtive readings.

Carter initially focused his diary entries on the daily routine of managing his far-flung agrarian enterprises. The weather was a source of constant concern. "The poor Farmer," he recognized, "must always feel the weather and rejoice when it is good and be patient when it is unseasonable." He waged a relentless war against perennial pests such as tobacco flies, ground worms, and moles.

Like many planters, Carter considered slavery a necessary evil and viewed himself as a "very kind" master. Yet his diary entries reveal a man willing to intimidate and whip slaves caught stealing or deemed indolent or careless. He once insisted that a "negroe can't be honest" - but neglected to analyze how the institution of slavery itself might foster such deceit.

By the 1760s, as tensions between the American Colonies and Britain boiled over, Carter found himself beset with rebellions within his own plantation empire. His diary entries became more impassioned and blustery. They reflect the mercurial moods of a brittle patriarch, filled with preening pride and grumpy self-pity, determined to rule at home yet desperate for affection and devotion.

His unruly family provoked constant friction and disappointment. He came to believe his children were eagerly awaiting his death and their inheritances. They defied him with theatrical flair and mulish regularity. His daughter eloped with a man he had forbidden her to see; his obstinate son Robert grew addicted to gambling; his grandson Landon was surly and insolent.

Isaac stresses that Carter "wrote his best at white heat." Quick to anger, his emotions "spluttered off his pen." In 1774, for example, he declared that son Robert "is a monster" eager to torture and defy his father.

Growing rebelliousness in the British colonies during the 1770s accompanied spreading rebellions in Carter's "own little kingdom."

In 1776, for instance, eight slaves stole a gun, "took my grandson Landon's Bag of bullets and all the Powder, and went off in my Petty Auger canoe" to join up with royal governor Lord Dunmore, who promised runaway slaves their freedom if they would join the British forces.

Like many American planters, Carter was an ambivalent revolutionary. By habit and conviction, he preferred maintaining ties with the British, but he eventually concluded that there was no choice but to pursue independence from a distant government grown tyrannical.

Isaac highlights the irony of Carter, the "righteous patriarch," grudgingly endorsing defiance of the King's rule at the same time that he was lamenting the loss of paternalistic authority within his own plantation world. The "king" of Sabine Hall came to loathe his revolting son Robert. In 1776 he recorded in his diary that his "cursed" son was "my most vexatious tyrant, & everybody seems to take pleasure that he is so."

"Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom" provides a captivating view of a leading planter's complex personal life and political transformation during the Revolutionary era. Isaac deftly blends pungent extracts from Carter's diary with illuminating biographical details and historical commentary.

At times Isaac claims to know more about Carter's mental state than the evidence warrants, and he makes too much of the coincidence of the American Revolution with Carter's family rebellion. Yet overall this book is a splendid addition to our understanding of the Virginia gentry - and of ourselves.

Historian David Emory Shi is president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

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