“Amelioration and Empire,” by Christa Dierksheide

“Amelioration and Empire: Progress and Slavery in the Plantation Americas”
Christa Dierksheide
286 pp., University of Virginia Press

In “Amelioration and Empire,” historian Christa Dierksheide argues that “enlightened” slaveowners in the British Caribbean and the American South, neither backward reactionaries nor freedom-loving hypocrites, thought of themselves as modern, cosmopolitan men with a powerful alternative vision of progress in the Atlantic world.

Instead of radical revolution and liberty, they believed that amelioration — defined by them as gradual progress through the mitigation of social or political evils such as slavery — was the best means of driving the development and expansion of New World societies.

Interrogating amelioration as an intellectual concept among slaveowners, Dierksheide uses a transnational approach that focuses on provincial planters rather than metropolitan abolitionists, shedding new light on the practice of slavery in the Anglophone Atlantic world.

She argues that amelioration — of slavery and provincial society more generally — was a dominant concept shared by enlightened planters who sought to “improve” slavery toward its abolition, as well as by those who sought to ameliorate the institution in order to expand the system.

By illuminating the common ground shared between supposedly anti- and pro-slavery provincials, she provides a powerful alternative to the usual story of liberal progress in the plantation Americas. Amelioration, she demonstrates, went well beyond the master-slave relationship, underpinning Anglo-American imperial expansion throughout the Atlantic world.

About the Author: Christa Dierksheide specializes in the history of plantations in Age of Revolutions, with a special focus on Jefferson. She completed her PhD at the University of Virginia (UVa) in 2008. Her forthcoming book, “Improving Slavery or Ending Slavery in Jeffersonian America, 1770-1840” (University of Virginia Press) interrogates planters’ visions of progressive slave societies in Virginia, South Carolina, and the British Caribbean. Since 2006, she has conceptualized and written exhibitions for Monticello, including “The Boisterous Sea of Liberty” and “The Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello.” She is also co-author of “Thomas Jefferson’s Worlds,” the introductory film at Monticello. Currently, she teaches in the UVa history department and works at Monticello’s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.