Friday, February 5, 2010

Bookends Friday: The Genealogist and "Empire of Liberty"

I really should just pony up for a subscription to The Genealogist, possibly the most obscure of the top-echelon genealogy magazines. The other day I came across a free library duplicate of the Spring 2003 issue containing an excellent and lengthy article by Cameron Allen, "Lucinda Depp and Her Descendants: A Freed Black Family of Virginia and Ohio," a companion to an earlier article tracing the white Depp family from Powhatan County, Virginia, to central Ohio.

The black Depps were freed under an 1801 deed of emancipation (effective on the death of the grantor and wife), and John Depp's 1829 will, probated in 1831. Allen writes:

The most startling fact in the settlement of Depp's estate was the extreme expedition with which it was accomplished on the heels of the death of his widow, Elizabeth. Her will, made on 7 January 1835, was proved on 2 February 1835 in Powhatan County. In just two weeks from the probate of her will, all the land left to the freed slave family was sold and all the slaves not freed by the will of John Depp were sold on 16 and 17 February 1835. That has to be a record! ... Quite obviously the four projected grantees under the will had decided [ahead of time] ... that they would not take title, but, rather, sell their interest through the executor of the will and take the cash to start a new life elsewhere.
About the time I read this I had just finished Gordon S. Wood's magisterial (and to me very informative) Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. One of his major themes is how the high-minded cosmopolitan visions of the Founders generation morphed into the bumptious, militantly provincial, and rather raw democratic enthusiasm of the next generation. (Just compare the characters of George Washington and Andrew Jackson.)

A tragic part of that story is that in the 1790s there were some good reasons to think that slavery was on the way out, in part because it grossly contradicted the ideals of liberty that had animated the American Revolution. Virginia slaveholders were less willing to break up families; Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other southerners deplored the institution's injustice; new evangelical Baptist and Methodist denominations stood against slavery; the College of William and Mary conferred an honorary degree on the British abolitionist Granville Sharp.

It was a false dawn. A combination of technological changes, fear that the black revolution in Haiti might spread, and a few actual slave conspiracies turned things ugly. The evangelicals backed off; in 1806 a new Virginia law required freed slaves to leave the state; and the ideology of racism was reborn to justify the repression.

In this context it comes as no surprise that the white Depps' estate was probated in record time and that the black Depps had already planned to leave their home for free soil. Virginia's loss was Ohio's gain. History can illuminate genealogy.

1 comment:

N. LaRue said...

Wow, what a great post! A little social history as it relates to the climate in VA at the time and a couple new references to check out. Like you, I tend to think of "The Genealogist" as a more "obscure" journal and it really shouldn't be that way. We all know it has a great reputation, we're just not reading it regularly. This was a great reminder that the quality of articles included are worth subscribing. Thanks for posting this!