Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation

By Rhys Isaac. Oxford Univ. 423 pp. $35 In the tiny world of colonial Virginia, Landon Carter was a very big cheese. He was the patriarch of one of Virginia's oldest, wealthiest and most prominent families -- First Families of Virginia through and through, right up there with the Byrds, the Berkeleys, the Fitzhughs, the Lees and the Lightfoots -- and the owner of an immense estate. Not merely did he preside over the plantation called Sabine Hall, about 50 miles north of Williamsburg, with its "total enslaved population of around 100," but he "also owned more distant plantations . . . in further parts of Richmond County, in Northumberland County down-river, in Fauquier, Stafford and Prince William, and Loudoun Counties up-river, and in York, and King and Queen Counties to the southward," a thralldom in which some 400 additional slaves labored.

By the standards of his time, place and class, Carter probably was a good man. He was a son of the Enlightenment who read extensively and was intimate with the classics. Something of an amateur physician, he tended assiduously to the medical needs of all those who came under his sway. He married three times -- all three wives died -- and was the father of seven children. As a young man he "began the typical career of a high-born Virginia gentleman," serving as "a justice of the peace in the county court, a colonel of the county militia, and a parish vestryman of the tax-supported Church of England, and he continued in these offices until revolution disrupted the whole system." Like many other colonial grandees, he was devoutly loyal to the crown and maintained stout allegiance to it right up to enactment of the Stamp Act in 1765. Thereafter he was a strong (if somewhat befuddled) supporter of the revolution and the new order it brought, though at his death in December 1778 its full implications remained unknown.

He was also a devoted, if not outright obsessive, diarist, from 1758 until his death. "Landon Carter's long-kept record is truly remarkable among diaries," Rhys Isaac writes. "The imprint of its angry keeper is so intense, and his outrage resonates with the deep family drama embedded in one of the most momentous revolutions in the history of the world. Through all his experiences he gives us an unequaled view of a man, like many of his contemporaries, divided within himself. He clung to his British constitutional heritage, but his heart was given to the cause of American liberty."

Isaac, visiting professor at the College of William and Mary and author of The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790, uses Carter's diaries as the foundation upon which to build Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom. He quotes from them extensively within his own narrative (he identifies them by setting them in italics) toward achieving his two-fold purpose: "to open for readers an understanding of Landon Carter's world as he knew it" and "to show the Revolution as personal experience." Like so many others who have inhabited American academia since the late 1960s, Isaac is under the spell of the race-gender-class mantra and thus is susceptible to interpreting the past through the lens of the present, but the reader who is willing to overlook his occasional attitudinizing will find that in collaboration with Landon Carter he has created a detailed, persuasive picture of a world so different from our own as to be almost unimaginable.

Isaac's biases show most clearly in his emphasis on that buzzword of radical feminism, "patriarchy." Right at the outset he posits Carter's "self-idealization as lord and patriarch," and he beats that drum incessantly thereafter. In this instance, though, he is on firm ground. Colonial America was a patriarchy, just as was the England it took as model, and it was nowhere more so than in the South, where patriarchal sway extended beyond the boundaries of natural family to those wholly involuntary members of the extended family, the slaves:

"Landon, according to his worldview, knew that he had a patriarchal duty to all on his estate. Care & protection was what the feudal lord owed his dependent inferiors. In return, of course, they owed him service, deference, and obedience. This was very much how Landon saw his relationship to his enslaved workers. It was congruent with his own sacred obligation to his own sometimes-harsh, sometimes-benign master, God. . . . Landon knew that he had divine authority to keep idlers at their tasks. He knew he had a duty to punish as necessary the sinful children of Eve who were in his charge."

The sinful included not just his slaves, but his own children. His eldest son, Robert Wormsley Carter, lived at Sabine Hall with his wife, Winifred, whom it is no exaggeration to say Landon Carter loathed -- in the diaries she is portrayed as "the outspoken contrary woman," and Carter records "the sad, the infuriating and the humiliating intimacies" of her life -- and treated accordingly. His daughter Judith married over his vehement opposition and was repudiated for a long time before an eventual reconciliation. Carter entered all his complaints in his diary, then left it where family members could read its "passionate narratives" and, presumably, bathe in their own guilt. "These dramas are conflicts such as every family harbors to this day," Isaac writes; "but they are also historic since they carry reverberations of the disturbed times through which the diarist felt himself fated to live."

It is difficult for us now to comprehend just how disturbed those times actually were. Well before the Revolution began, the known world was undergoing deep change. Carter was well acquainted with a new kind of novel -- Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and Pamela -- that "told strong stories of [women's] self-realization and so contributed subtly but surely to the subversion of the ancient hierarchical order of ruling fathers." Carter, Isaac argues, was torn between "sentimental" and "authoritarian" stories: "he wanted to be a lordly patriarch like his father; and he wanted to be loved and understood like Pamela or Clarissa."

Carter's world was falling apart, and Isaac makes a rather strong case that he knew it. As Isaac writes (in the clotted prose that can make reading this book a mighty labor), "In the political sphere, expectations of government shifted away from kingly patriarchalism toward the more comprehensively participatory modes that would generate the ideology of democracy." Carter's diaries in his final years "come from a late moment of an ancient regime of knowledge and society. The diarist felt in his heart that he was chronicling decline. His own death could not be far off, and he sensed also the passing of the world which his altogether admirable father had bequeathed to him."

Nothing hastened the end of that world so emphatically and conclusively as the American Revolution. After the Stamp Act, Carter knew, as Benjamin Franklin did, that he could not be a free man under British rule, and he turned from royalist to revolutionary, just as Franklin did. "It is very hard now . . . to realize the radicalism of this step," Isaac writes, "and so to understand not only the agony that Landon felt, deep-dyed patriarchal monarchist that he was, but also the kind of collective anguish of the colonists, long so proudly British." The reader might wish for more graceful prose, but Isaac is right when he says: "Casting out the king and founding the republic was a patricidal act; and the father killing was cosmic. It profoundly changed the order of the world. The principle of patriarchy within the institution of monarchy had been comprehensive; it had given coherence to the whole system."

That a better system replaced it is self-evident, but this made it no easier for those who had to undergo the metamorphosis. The autumn of these patriarchs was wrenching and painful. It is perhaps easier to pass judgment on them than to understand them, but Isaac manages to accomplish the latter even as he indulges himself in the former. *

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Landon Carter of Sabine Hall (1710-1778)Map of the lower Rappahannock River, ca. 1755