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The historiography of slavery seems to oscillate between two poles. One tradition, perhaps still best exemplified by Eugene Genovese's magisterial Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974), relies on the accretion of evidence scattered across time and place to draw the broadest possible conclusions about the peculiar institution. A countertradition, much in vogue now, looks for answers to "large questions in small places," in Charles Joyner's phrase. The former approach invariably is challenged by particular cases that refute its generalizations. Yet the latter tendency, of which Charles Dew's new book is an excellent recent example, risks taking particularity so far that generalization becomes virtually impossible.
Bond of Iron represents an especially interesting case of particularity because Dew, probably the foremost historian of industrial slavery, began his research intending to write a broad study of slave ironworkers. But as enough serendipitous discoveries allowed him to piece together the half-century saga of Buffalo Forge, its owner, William Weaver, and the generations of highly skilled slave artisans who labored for him, Dew could not resist taking "an in-depth look at how the slave system functioned at a single southern manufacturing enterprise" (p. xiv). In doing so, his portrait of industrial slavery departs radically from the one general account we have, Robert Starobin's Industrial Slavery in the Old South (1970). In Starobin's view, industrial slavery combined the harshest features of early industrial labor and bondage itself, and industrial slaves endured work conditions far worse than those prevalent in plantation slavery.(1) Dew finds, however, that slave ironworkers forged a remarkable degree of control over their own lives.
Dew breaks his narrative down into three components. First, he tells the story of the master, tracing the "long and litigious career" (p. 83) of William Weaver, mostly through the numerous chancery court documents generated by Weaver's frequent (and interminable) lawsuits. Weaver emerges in this portrait as a singular individual. Born into a family of Pennsylvania Dunkers - a religious sect "unalterably opposed to the institution of slavery" (p. 16) - he invested in Virginia ironworks, secretly purchased a slave labor force, and eventually moved to Rockbridge County in western Virginia to oversee his increasingly …