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For Adam's Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England

For Adam's Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England

by Allegra di Bonaventura

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“Incomparably vivid . . . as enthralling a portrait of family life [in colonial New England] as we are likely to have.”—Wall Street Journal
In the tradition of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s classic, A Midwife’s Tale, comes this groundbreaking narrative by one of America’s most promising colonial historians. Joshua Hempstead was a


“Incomparably vivid . . . as enthralling a portrait of family life [in colonial New England] as we are likely to have.”—Wall Street Journal
In the tradition of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s classic, A Midwife’s Tale, comes this groundbreaking narrative by one of America’s most promising colonial historians. Joshua Hempstead was a well-respected farmer and tradesman in New London, Connecticut. As his remarkable diary—kept from 1711 until 1758—reveals, he was also a slave owner who owned Adam Jackson for over thirty years. In this engrossing narrative of family life and the slave experience in the colonial North, Allegra di Bonaventura describes the complexity of this master/slave relationship and traces the intertwining stories of two families until the eve of the Revolution. Slavery is often left out of our collective memory of New England’s history, but it was hugely impactful on the central unit of colonial life: the family. In every corner, the lines between slavery and freedom were blurred as families across the social spectrum fought to survive. In this enlightening study, a new portrait of an era emerges.

Editorial Reviews

Joseph Ellis
“An extraordinary story about ordinary people in a pre-revolutionary New England family. Among the people are a master and his slave, the only account of such psychological depth I have seen in all the family histories of New England. Impeccably researched, elegantly written, For Adams' Sake is a model of its kind.”
John Demos
“A work of astonishing ingenuity, intellectual and emotional depth, and (most of all) brilliant writing.”
Jon Butler
“Achieves an amazing, seemingly impossible conjunction—the best book ever on New England family life and the best book ever on the family context of American slavery, neither pretty—a riveting story and great history based on astounding research.”
“Engrossing… This is an important examination of an often neglected aspect of our colonial heritage.”
Annette Gordon-Reed
“A fascinating view into the little known world of slavery in the north. . . . . Allegra di Bonaventura’s rich account complicates the traditional narrative of slavery and race in early America.”
William S. McFeely
“A rich canvas. . . . A great story; great history.”
Woody Holton
“Your book club will love For Adam's Sake.”
Peter Onuf
“With deep research and scrupulous fidelity to her sources, Di Bonaventura enables us to hear the voices of her subjects and glimpse the rhythms and ruptures that defined a world we thought we had lost.”
Fergus M. Bordewich - American Scholar
“Impressively researched and fine-grained. . . . [Her] portrayal of Yankee slavery is acute and sensitive, without being sentimental. . . . In telling the Jacksons’ story, she has recovered from centuries of oblivion people of colonial America’s lowest order, restoring them not just to history, but also to their individuality and humanity. It is a mighty achievement.”
Eric Herschthal - The Daily Beast
“Di Bonaventura’s achievement is to make the familiar seem strange, turning a topic we thought we knew so much about into something that feels new.”
Publishers Weekly
When the subject of slavery arises, colonial New England rarely comes to mind, but di Bonaventura, the assistant dean at the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, shows in this gripping dual biography that the institution has a rich history in the region. Di Bonaventura details New London, Conn., shipwright Joshua Hempstead’s (1678–1758) apprenticeship and marriage, and the early years of his career as he set up shop and put down roots. The account draws from the shipwright’s near-daily diary entries. Meanwhile nearby, Adam Jackson grows up a slave under the Foxes, where in addition to working on the family farm six days a week, he is exposed to religious teachings and sobering reminders of the discrepancy between slaves and free men. After Hempstead’s wife dies, the patriarch is forced to work tirelessly to raise his children and maintain his household. But a break comes when his role as executor of the Fox estate allows him to purchase Jackson. Hempstead, whom townsfolk regard as a “fair and honest” man, portrays his new servant as hardworking and constant, and their relationship—as rendered in writing by the master’s own hand—sheds light on both men, their town, and their moment in history. But despite Hempstead’s respect for Jackson, di Bonaventura insists that the former’s diary is still primarily “a chronicle of Adam’s objectification.” 20 illus. Agent: Elyse Cheney, Elyse Cheney Literary Associates. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Di Bonaventura (assistant dean, Yale Graduate Sch. of Arts & Sciences) adds to the existing scholarship on slavery in the American Northeast. Originally focused on the diary of Joshua Hempstead, a Connecticut shipwright, her book morphed into a larger work on family and slavery after di Bonaventura discovered Hempstead owned a slave, Adam Jackson. The author provides historical background and traces three generations of families: Hempsteads, Rogers, Livingstons, Winthrops, and Jacksons. The book is not a story of slavery itself but of the individuals and families involved in it. Because Adam once belonged to a line of the litigious Rogers family, more is known of him and his life, by means of extant court records, than is known of most other slaves of the time. But even with the court records, evidence of Jackson's day-to-day life is scant, and the narrative focuses mostly on his master, Joshua Hempstead. VERDICT With its tangential stories and mix of characters, the narrative can be confusing at times, but the book is ambitious and reflects a trend of examining the individual in slavery. Recommended for anyone interested in the New England dimensions of slavery or in Colonial American history.—Jason Martin, Stetson Univ. Lib., DeLand, FL
Kirkus Reviews
A scholarly study of the interactions among families--from wealthy landowners to impecunious African and Indian slaves--in New London, Conn., in the 17th and 18th centuries. Di Bonaventura, an assistant dean (Graduate School of Arts and Science/Yale Univ.), debuts with this adaptation of her doctoral dissertation, and it retains the strengths and weaknesses of that type of writing. Her research is thorough and imaginative. Although much of the story rests on the diary of Joshua Hempstead--a diary he kept assiduously for 47 years--di Bonaventura also explores other significant primary documents from churches and various civic and private archives, integrating the work of other historians of the region and time. The titular "Adam"--Adam Jackson--was a black slave whom Hempstead--a shipwright, farmer and respected local citizen--purchased when his sons were beginning to move on to form their own families. Virtually all of what we know about Jackson's time with the Hempsteads comes from the slave owner's diary, but di Bonaventura uses inference and documentary sources to flesh out his story of long, dutiful servitude. She also interweaves the stories of Jackson's family with those of other significant families--e.g., the Livingstons, the Rogers and the Winthrops. Throughout the relevant decades, these families interacted in various ways--in church, public forums, courtrooms, etc. Di Bonaventura offers some gripping stories--notably, John Jackson's (Adam's father) fierce attempts to keep his family together, poor Mary Livingston's losing battle with cancer and the nasty nature of John Winthrop IV. The author pauses occasionally to instruct us about the importance of stone and wood, the legal system, Indian tribes, shipbuilding, the Great Awakenings and much more. Her voice remains generally detached and scholarly throughout. Although the scholarship is stellar, readers may yearn for more attitude and animation from the author.

Product Details

Liveright Publishing Corporation
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5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Allegra di Bonaventura is an assistant dean at the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in New Haven, Connecticut. Her dissertation was awarded the George Washington Egleston Prize.

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