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Response to Review no. 604

I take it as a great compliment to Race and Liberty in the New Nation that the only criticism Professor Temperley offers of the book is that it could use a dose of Mencken- or Twain-like wit. Professor Temperley intuits correctly; while I found ironies in the story of how Virginians wrestled with the problem of slavery in a society dedicated to liberty, I found little humor, and a great deal of tragedy. Indeed, Temperley’s review highlights this tragedy: ‘otherwise perfectly ordinary and decent people committing acts of appalling cruelty’ (Temperley’s words).

Professor Temperley has done readers a great service in retelling the book’s main story so faithfully and fairly. I am very grateful to him for that (though I hope his review will not discourage people from buying the book!). But I am not smart enough to let a good thing alone, and so would like to use this opportunity to highlight what I view as the book’s main contributions to our understanding of post-Revolutionary America.

First, as Temperley notes, in studying how Virginians utilized manumission I found an important shift in its meanings over time. In addition to Temperley’s summary of that shift, I would only point out that from the mid 1790s onward, African Americans, both enslaved and free, played an increasingly large role in manumission as they emancipated themselves or family members. Manumission was less and less about whites’ feelings about slavery and more and more about blacks’ desire for liberty.

The book also draws attention to how centrally race figured in Virginians’ efforts to reconcile liberty and slavery—not just by declaring that blacks were not men and therefore not deserving of liberty (an argument described in Duncan Macleod’s work). Race shaped white Virginians’ understandings of their own white rights and privileges. It did more than that, too; race guided whites’ understandings of themselves as people. Even when they disagreed over the future of slavery in Virginia or over the representation scheme in the Virginia legislature, white Virginians (and I think white Americans generally) agreed in their superiority over blacks. And they became ever more anxious about that superiority, ever more in need of expressing it, as the actual differences between white and black seemed to be, in fact were, lessening. Precisely because white Virginians sensed the speciousness of race, the speciousness of difference, they felt compelled to emphasize its importance repeatedly. Race was both real and unreal, so it could only be a problem. Quite in contrast to what I set out to examine when I began my research—I was not initially interested in race at all, but in ideas about slavery—I found race to be at the center of the story. As much as it might seem obvious that this should be the case, other historians of Virginia have not emphasized the importance of race in quite the way that I have in this book, which is why I put the word first in the title.

Finally, it is worth noting that I found the 1820s to mark an especially important turning point in Virginian and American history. This observation is, I think, part of a growing consensus that will perhaps draw historians’ attention to a decade that has often gotten lost between the Revolutionary era and the years leading up to the Civil War.

It was a pleasurable and gratifying experience to see how Professor Temperley reframed the issues and findings of Race and Liberty in the New Nation according to his own sensibilities, in the context of his own deep historical knowledge, and in his own lively prose. I can only hope other readers will embrace the book similarly and will use it to enrich their understanding of the past, if not to generate a good chuckle.