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Motives of Honor, Pleasure and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Chesapeake, 1607-1763

Author(s):Walsh, Lorena S.
Reviewer(s):Coclanis, Peter A.

Published by EH.NET (October 2010)

Lorena S. Walsh, Motives of Honor, Pleasure and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Chesapeake, 1607-1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.? xviii + 704 pp. $70 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8078-3234-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Peter A. Coclanis, Department of History, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Over the past thirty-five or forty years, no part of colonial British America has been better served by historical scholarship than the Chesapeake.? Much of this scholarship was produced by people associated with what has come to be known as the ?Chesapeake School,? the early core of which in the 1970s and 80s consisted of scholars such as Russell Menard, Darrett and Anita Rutman, Allan Kulikoff, Carville Earle, Lois Green Carr, and Lorena Walsh.? In reconstructing and reinterpreting the history of this region, these scholars not only revitalized the study of the Chesapeake, but also profoundly influenced historians working on other parts of British America, many of whom defined themselves in part by their degree of separation from Menard et al.?? And no member of the Chesapeake group has contributed more to our understanding of the region than Lorena Walsh.??

During the 1970s and 80s, Walsh?s published contributions came in the form of scholarly reports, articles, and book chapters.? Since then, she has continued publishing in such venues, but has gradually extended her scholarly reach — and ambition- – in three important books.? The first of these, Robert Cole?s World: Agriculture and Society in Early Maryland, co-authored with Russell Menard and her long-time collaborator, Lois Green Carr, appeared in 1991.? This book — which in my view was never given sufficient due — is unique in the literature on the early Chesapeake, representing, as it did, a deeply researched and textured micro study of one middling Chesapeake planter, his extended family, servants, and hirelings.? In the study one gets an unprecedented bird?s-eye (worm?s-eye?) view of the day-to-day realities involved in farming and farm-building in one part of the Chesapeake tidewater — St. Mary?s County, Maryland — in the middle decades of the seventeenth century.

Six years? later Walsh published her first single-authored book, From Calabar to Carter?s Grove: The History of a Virginia Slave Community.?? Whereas Robert Cole?s World examined one extended family over the course of two decades, Walsh extended her scholarly gaze considerably in her impressive 1997 monograph to treat, as the book?s subtitle suggests, an entire community: the African and African-American slaves that lived — and died — on a large plantation complex on the York River peninsula in tidewater Virginia between the late seventeenth century and the early nineteenth century.? The fact that Walsh was able to capture so much about a community that was not particularly well documented testifies to two of the qualities that have long been associated with her work: the creative use of non-traditional historical sources (including archaeological and architectural evidence) and meticulous, painstaking archival research.? As a result of her efforts, a previously unremembered, indeed, largely unknown slave community was recovered and brought to life.

Now in 2010 Walsh offers us a more ambitious volume still: Motives of Honor, Pleasure and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Chesapeake, 1607-1763.? Although the stated focus of the volume is on elite planters, their economic behavior and mentalit?, in Motives of Honor, Pleasure and Profit, Walsh does much more than that, tracing, periodizing , and analyzing the economic history of Virginia and Maryland from Jamestown until the eve of the Revolution.? Moreover, in the massive volume, she covers a lot of social and political ground, and early on informs awe-struck readers that she is planning a sequel covering the region after its ?golden age? had passed, i.e., between about 1764 and 1820!

Walsh began working on Motives of Honor, Pleasure and Profit almost thirty years ago, and has already published some of the research findings contained therein, so that some readers will doubtless find familiar the broad thrust of her argument and a number of her conclusions.? To say this is not to diminish the author?s achievement.?? Indeed, situating the argument/conclusions in one place between hard covers usefully underscores for readers the massive research effort involved in the overall project, the care with which data were marshaled and arrayed, the author?s balance and judiciousness in interpretation, and her modesty of presentation.

And what, broadly speaking, does Walsh in fact argue??? On the basis of a wide variety of county and provincial records and close scrutiny of the private records — correspondence, diaries, account books, ledgers, and the like — of the thirty-two best documented Chesapeake planters, Walsh?s principal findings are straightforward and deceptively simple.? First and foremost is her conclusion that Chesapeake planters, particularly elite planters in the region, were economically rational agriculturalists.? These men (and a few women as well) responded readily to changing market conditions, attempted to allocate resources efficiently, and tried, more or less assiduously, to accumulate the land and capital assets necessary for successful farm-building.? Over the course of the seventeenth century, Chesapeake planters found a profitable staple in tobacco, and, via the enslavement of African and African-American populations, the labor force needed to cultivate it.?

Once established, the Chesapeake tobacco economy, not surprisingly, experienced ups and downs, with price swings characterized by sustained periods of low prices and some spikes, most notably, during the ?golden age? of the 1750s and early 1760s.? Through it all, Chesapeake planters responded rationally to price signals in tobacco and other product/factor markets.? The rationality of their responses is demonstrated by their shifting labor-force preferences, their efforts (largely successful) to enhance labor productivity — as measured by revenue per laborer or by a standard early modern proxy, ?shares [of export staples] per hand? — and, ultimately, by their changing crop mix, particularly the eighteenth-century shift in many parts of the region from tobacco to wheat and other grains.? In responding in these ways, they helped to create a highly prosperous agricultural economy, albeit one based on slave labor.

The above conclusions merely scratch the surface of Walsh?s treasure trove.?? Readers interested in tobacco cultivation practices, the consumer behavior of planters, or the material conditions of the enslaved — to cite but three important topics that come immediately to mind — will find much to sustain them in Motives of Honor, Pleasure and Profit.? Similar sustenance will also be found by readers interested in understanding what careful quantitative and qualitative research, methodological rigor, and historical praxis are all about.? In the quiet, non-splashy manner for which she is known, Lorena Walsh has in her magisterial third book offered us unrivaled access to the plantation business in the early Chesapeake.? Like many other scholars in the field, I avidly await the sequel, wherein she will treat the Chesapeake tobacco economy?s denouement.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.? He is author, most recently, of ?The Economics of Slavery,? in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, edited by Robert Paquette and Mark M. Smith (Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 489-512.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Business History
Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century