Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia

Overview

During the Revolutionary Period, and in the early days of the Union, Virginia was the nation’s most promising state. It produced a galaxy of America’s most important founders and statesmen: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Marshall, and many others. And yet, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Virginia had become little more than a byword for poverty, slavery, and economic stagnation. The decline was dramatic and startling. What happened? In Dominion of Memories, Susan Dunn chronicles the ...

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Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia

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Overview

During the Revolutionary Period, and in the early days of the Union, Virginia was the nation’s most promising state. It produced a galaxy of America’s most important founders and statesmen: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Marshall, and many others. And yet, by the middle of the nineteenth century, Virginia had become little more than a byword for poverty, slavery, and economic stagnation. The decline was dramatic and startling. What happened? In Dominion of Memories, Susan Dunn chronicles the precipitous decline of America’s most promising state. A gloriously written tale of the Founding Fathers and their beloved state, Dominion of Memories offers in microcosm the story of how a nation founded with great hope in the Age of Revolution found itself marching inexorably towards civil war half a century later.

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Editorial Reviews

Mick Sussman
Slavery's role in the decline of the South is an old story, but Dunn, a professor of humanities at Williams College, finds fresh insights by making a case study of Virginia. She emphasizes the significance of lesser-known figures like Thomas Roderick Dew, who in 1832 published an essay that laid the intellectual groundwork for an uncompromisingly pro-slavery ideology, and Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, who anticipated secession with an 1836 novel envisioning a Southern rebellion. Dunn's chief aim, though, is to show the complicity of Jefferson and Madison in Virginia's stagnation.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Whatever happened to the great Commonwealth of Virginia? Dunn (Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800) investigates how Virginia fell from being the most advanced and vibrant of the 18th-century American states to being among the new country's most stultified and parochial. Dunn points out that four of the first five American presidents were Virginians, and it was often supposed in the early Republic that, in the words of one politician, the Old Dominion had hatched "a systematic design of perpetually governing the country." By the 1820s, however, the commonwealth's once thriving economy had shuddered to a halt, its aristocratic planters were defaulting on their considerable debts, many lived in poverty and visitors from the industrializing, bustling Northeast noticed that everything was dirty and dilapidated—even Monticello and Mount Vernon. Dunn attributes Virginia's downfall to a combination of its ruling elite adhering to a "gentlemanly" way of life, its obsession with states' rights and the retention of slavery. These factors, Dunn says, fostered an atmosphere of indolence and tedious provincialism that condemned the Old Dominion to the status of a has-been champion musing nostalgically on the pleasures of the past. By focusing intently on the stresses within a single state, Dunn's is an admirable guide to those perplexed by the eventual sundering of the entire Union. (June)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
KLIATT - Patricia Moore
Williams College history professor Dunn presents the reader with an absorbing chronicle of Virginia from Colonial to pre-Civil War times. Seen mainly through the public and private writings of storied leaders Jefferson and Madison, Virginia struggles to maintain its position of prominence in a young nation that quickly outstrips it economically and socially. The value of this smoothly written and exhaustively researched volume is that it offers a view of Virginia and its fabled leaders that most history readers may well have missed. Jefferson and Madison think, rethink and even seem to contradict themselves as they meditate on the growth of their young nation while the nation moves beyond them and, finally, begins to set itself against Virginia, the South, and the slave culture. Highly recommended for all teachers and advanced students of American history and culture. Reviewer: Patricia Moore
Kirkus Reviews
Virginia went from cradle of presidents to political backwater in a couple of generations-mostly for reasons of its own making, argues Dunn (Humanities/Williams College; George Washington, 2004, etc.). Jefferson's death in 1826 coincided with the "sunset of the Virginia dynasty," writes Dunn. Hitherto, Virginia had provided four of the first five presidents and much of the early judiciary; afterward, Virginia would supply only one president, John Tyler, and two justices, Lewis Powell and Peter Daniel. The reversal of fortunes owes to many factors, by Dunn's account. One was the state's "population of slumbering citizens, demoralized and passive," bullied by property requirements and custom to leave politics to the landed aristocracy; another was illiteracy, four times higher than in states to the north, since "wealthy Virginians, historically averse to taxation, refused to support public schools." Jefferson's granddaughter, Ellen Coolidge, rightly remarked that for the state to prosper it required good soil and intelligent farmers, good citizens willing to support roads and schools and other amenities, a diversified economy, bustling cities and widely shared ideals of freedom and equality. Yet hidebound social traditions met political and economic reaction to produce resistance to change, such as breaking away from a tobacco economy, abandoning slavery and investing in industrial expansion. In the early republic, Virginia had no cities of note, no means to support the textile industry that it could have developed; had the state not cut off funding for geological surveys, Virginia explorers might have discovered its stores of "coal, gold, iron, copper, lead, and even salt" and yieldedwealth that way. (One of the state surveyors left in disgust and, as Dunn notes, founded MIT.) Irrelevant to the nation's progress, Virginians came to embrace a wounded sense of state's rights, still led by a gentry that subscribed to the view that "good government was simply government of, by, and for themselves and their interests." And so it would long remain. A lucid, provocative work of historical inquiry, though unlikely to win any praise among the First Families of Virginia.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465003563
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/28/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 793,477
  • Product dimensions: 5.83 (w) x 8.91 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Dunn is Professor of Humanities at Williams College. She is the author or editor of numerous books, including Something That Will Surprise the World: The Essential Writings of the Founding Fathers; and Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism. She lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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