Sheppard Lee has been left a prosperous estate by his father, but soon manages to lose most of it. Out of sheer laziness, he watches his 40-acre farm go to ruin, and he allows an unscrupulous overseer to cheat him out of the rest of his patrimony. He's reduced to digging for Captain Kid's gold, which according to local legend has been buried somewhere on his farm. While he's out digging in the middle of the night, he stumbles upon the dead body of a wealthy Philadelphia brewer who's been hunting in the area, and he discovers a new way out of his difficulties. He wishes he could trade places with the brewer, and—before he realizes what's happening—his soul passes out of him and reanimates the brewer's body. This begins a picaresque series of adventures in which Sheppard Lee passes from body to body in search of happiness.
He discovers that every body, no matter how well-circumstanced it appears from the outside, carries with it its own pack of troubles. The wealthy brewer, for example, suffers from gout and a shrewish wife, which combine to drive Sheppard Lee in search of another dead body to reanimate. What most of the secondhand bodies have in common is that their owners live off inherited wealth, or speculation, or credit, or the prospect of inheriting or marrying well. No one seems to do an honest day's work. No one is as fortunate as he seems from the outside.
Eventually, the Sheppard Lee ends up in the body of Tom, a slave on a Virginia plantation. The modern reader will find this section the most troubling. Tom has a kind, paternalistic master who requires little work from his slaves and smilingly allows them to cheat him at every turn. As Tom, Sheppard Lee finds some provisional happiness—until an abolitionist tract falls into the hands of the plantation's slaves, and foments a bloody insurrection. This section has to be read in the context of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831, and the subsequent suppression of "incendiary" abolitionist publications by the post office in 1835. At the time, abolitionism was still out of the mainstream, and even opponents of slavery like John Quincy Adams worried that their tactics would lead to bloody slave insurrections.
Bird depicts the slaves, in easy and comfortable circumstances under a kind-hearted master, being stirred to a murderous frenzy by a pamphlet. In his previous incarnation, Sheppard Lee had been destroyed by a false story, and Bird is fascinated with the notion that stories—rumors, lies, false promises, uninformed public opinion—can come to have the force of fact. But the modern reader can't help but find his depiction of slavery highly objectionable.
The novel was originally published in 1836. In that year, President Jackson had issued the Specie Circular, an executive order requiring purchases of government land to be paid for in specie. This caused the state banks to start hemorrhaging gold and silver. At the same time, he had withdrawn federal funds from the Second Bank of the United States, which damaged credit by taking federally-backed paper currency out of circulation. Meanwhile, speculation in public lands in the west reached a fever pitch and finally collapsed, leading to bank failures, record high unemployment, and a five-year long depression.
Bird's novel is a kind of extended parable on financial speculation, as Sheppard Lee speculates on various incarnations in the hope of improving his financial condition and his stock of happiness. Along the way, he learns that appearances are deceiving, and that happiness can only be purchased with the specie of honest hard work.
Illustrations by Robert Montgomery Bird (1806-1854).