Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase

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Thomas Jefferson advocated a republic of small farmers -- free and independent yeomen. Yet as president he presided over a massive expansion of the slaveholding plantation system -- particularly with the Louisiana Purchase -- squeezing the yeomanry to the fringes and to less desirable farmland. Now Roger G. Kennedy conducts an eye-opening examination of that gap between Jefferson's stated aspirations and what actually happened. Kennedy reveals how the Louisiana Purchase had a major impact on land use and the growth of slavery. He examines the great financial interests (such as the powerful land companies that speculated in new territories and the British textile interests) that carried the day against slavery's many opponents in the South itself (Native Americans, African Americans, Appalachian farmers, and conscientious opponents of slavery). He describes how slaveholders' cash crops (first tobacco, then cotton) sickened the soil and how the planters moved from one desolated tract to the next. Soon the dominant culture of the entire region -- from Maryland to Florida, from Carolina to Texas -- was that of owners and slaves producing staple crops for international markets. The earth itself was impoverished, in many places beyond redemption.

None of this, Kennedy argues, was inevitable. He focuses on the character, ideas, and ambitions of Thomas Jefferson to show how he and other Southerners struggled with the moral dilemmas presented by the presence of Indian farmers on land they coveted, by the enslavement of their workforce, by the betrayal of their stated hopes, and by the manifest damage being done to the earth itself. The pressures upon him, both psychological and economic, are detailed, as are the occasions on which decisions were made determining the future course of American history and the health of the land. Jefferson emerges as a tragic figure in a tragic period. As a former director of the National Park Service and before that of the National Museum of American History, Roger Kennedy has a rich background in history and environmental studies. In this superb volume, he weaves together environmental, political, economic, and intellectual history to paint a startlingly original portrait of the creation of the slaveholding South.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This aggravating book, published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, has considerable value despite itself. Like the Shenandoah River, Kennedy can't go from place to place in a straight line as he makes up words and terms ("preemptive humanism"). Yet amid the disorder and occasional pretentiousness, there's serious intent and plausible argument. Kennedy, director emeritus of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and author of Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson, believes that, while human decisions created the American plantation system and its slave laboring force, the spread of slavery had its own momentum. Much of that, he argues, can be attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the tragic figure in this drama. Kennedy shrewdly characterizes Jefferson as someone who couldn't finish projects he started or free himself from dilemmas of his own creating, such as the purchase of an inland empire destined to be filled, not with dependent farmers-Jefferson's ideal-but with slaves, cinching slavery's hold on the nation. Of all the curious characters here, none is more central than the previously little-known Fulwar Skipwith, a Virginian who fetched up in France, Florida and Louisiana. Kennedy takes the aspirations and wanderings of Skipwith, whose tale is worth the book, to symbolize the hold of Virginia's ways over the entire South. Kennedy is at his best when writing of farming, soil exhaustion and the environmental degradation brought on by the plantation system. But for learning about the nation's doubling of territory in 1803, general readers will do much better to turn to Charles Cerami's Jefferson's Great Gamble (Forecasts, Jan. 27). 25 illus. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The term Lost Cause generally refers to ex-slaveholders' hopes for an independent slaveholding Confederacy but is partly traceable to Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned free and independent yeomen, or small family farmers, as the foundation of the American republic. Yet his loyalties ultimately lay with the slaveholding plantation owners. Kennedy (director emeritus, National Museum of American History) argues that Jefferson's support of slaveholders turned his dreams for a yeoman republic into a lost cause. Jefferson's policies, including the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase, served slaveholders, whose ruinous land-use patterns and indebtedness to British interests contributed mightily to the territorial expansion of slavery. Kennedy has written an enjoyable and provocative work, taking a novel approach but backing it with good documentation. On the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, this book is an essential addition for academic and public libraries.-Charles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sweeping, continent-wide reinterpretation of early US history from Kennedy (Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson, 1999, etc.), who replaces individualist heroes such as Daniel Boone with economic movements, transcontinental forces, and unintended consequences. For example, writes the former director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation of yeomen, landholding farmers. What he got-what he allowed, in fact-was a corporatist country of plantation owners beholden to the hated England. When Napoleon arranged for Jefferson's purchase of the vast Louisiana territory in 1803-a sale he was not legally authorized to make, nor Jefferson to accept-his aim was to assure American dominion over the interior of North America, thus thwarting English efforts to keep a flanking presence on the Mississippi River. What happened, though, was that Jefferson, for puzzling reasons that do not reflect well on him, allowed fellow members of the slaveholding planter class that dominated early American politics to dictate the terms of settlement in the new lands of the Louisiana Purchase, thereby rendering his vision of a land settled by smallholders and eventually absent of slavery all but impossible-and, in the bargain, sowing the seeds of civil war. Kennedy offers a portrait that replaces nation-states with contending corporate forces: "There were more non-Americans fighting for American independence at Yorktown," he writes, "than native-born, and only a minority of the opposing troops under the command of Cornwallis were born in England," while the Spanish and even Indian nations were congeries of many ethnicities bonded by ever shifting alliances. Thematicallyrich and full of subtle arguments, Kennedy's study forces a reconsideration of accepted views. It couldn't come at a better time, given the soon-to-be widely commemorated bicentenary of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Fresh, endlessly fascinating, and altogether extraordinary.
From the Publisher

"Fresh, endlessly fascinating, and altogether extraordinary.... A sweeping, continent-wide reinterpretation of early US history.... Thematically rich and full of subtle arguments, Kennedy's study forces a reconsideration of accepted views. It couldn't come at a better time, given the soon-to-be widely commemorated bicentenary of the Lewis and Clark expedition."--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Roger Kennedy's throws down the gauntlet in his engaging new book. Was the freedom-loving, slave-holding Thomas Jefferson responsible for the coming of the Civil War? Kennedy's bold argument will certainly stir up controversy among the specialists, but it will also force them to rethink some of the most important questions in the history of the early American republic. Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause is vintage Kennedy, serving up a characteristically rich offering of fascinating stories, deft character sketches, and provocative conclusions."--Peter Onuf, University of Virginia

"Mr. Kennedy's astringency forces us to reconsider settled opinions, always a good thing."--Wall Street Journal

"Though in many ways a willful architect of the nation, Thomas Jefferson failed to build the foundation he envisioned in his heart of hearts: an Arcadian society of small farmers. His dream was trampled by a parade of vanities, intrigues, and missed opportunities, all marching lock step with the determinations of social history and natural history. Roger Kennedy highlights this fascinating story for us--he weaves it with stunning erudition, and delivers it with bounteous wit. Kennedy provides novel insights on Jefferson and numerous contemporaries, and he plows bare the roots of American land policy, revealing factors that are still germane after two centuries."--Daniel J. Gelo, University of Texas, San Antonio

"From this world of filibusters and spies, slaves and masters, tribal leaders and imperial politicians, Roger Kennedy has assembled as fascinating a cast as American history has ever produced."--Richard White, Stanford University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195176070
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 10/1/2004
  • Pages: 376
  • Sales rank: 1,170,074
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Roger Kennedy is Director Emeritus of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, and a past Director of the National Park Service. He has had a long and distinguished career in public service during which he has served six presidents. His books include Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson and (as general editor and contributor) the twelve-volume Smithsonian Guide to Historic America.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Chronology xiii
Part 1 The Land and Mr. Jefferson 1
Chapter 15
Choices and Consequences
Rain in Virginia and Its Results Lessons for Yeomen
Pasteur, Wilson, and the Three Sisters Yeomen, Planters, and the Land
Cheap Land and Slave Labor
Chapter 2 Washington, Jefferson, Three Worthies, and Plantation Migrancy Philosophers in the Parlor and Lessons on the Land Westward Sweeps the Course of Desolation The Gospel of Garland Harmon 17
Chapter 326
The Way Not Taken
The Makers of a New Order
Jefferson's Epitaph Disestablishing the Grandees
The Brotherhood
The Unpropitiated Son Monticello Again
Jefferson and Democracy Jefferson and the Family Farmer
Chapter 443
A Dependent Arcadia
The Virtues of Diversification Commercial Squires and Ungovernable Governors Diversification, the Pursuit of Happiness, and Cities Eastward Toward Civility
The Thousand-Foot Line
Chapter 560
Powers of the Earth Land Companies, Trading Companies, and Triassic Capitalism The Great Land Companies and Revolution Jefferson and Western Speculation
Veterans' Benefits Armed Occupation
Armed Occupation Marches On
Chapter 673
Jefferson's Opportunities and the Land 1784
The Second Opportunity
The Trans-Appalachian West The Third Opportunity
The Lower Mississippi Valley Old Men's Dreams and the Memories of the Land
Part 2 The Invisible Empire and the Land 85
Chapter 787
Colonies and Empires From Round Table to Board Table
Reinvesting the Loot Landed Gentry
Chapter 897
Textile Colonial-Imperialism
India Is Conquered by the Mechanics Solving the Problem of Supply
The Americans Are Put on Notice Hamilton, Jefferson, and Tench Coxe Respond to William Pitt Jefferson and the Cotton Business
Slaves as Cash Crop The Millers Send Out Their Salesmen
Independence? The British and the Plantocracy
Part 3 Resistance to the Plantation System 115
Chapter 9119
Mixed People and Mixed Motives
Indian Statehood McGillivray's Nationality
McGillivray and Washington
Chapter 10129
Resisters, Assisters, and Lost Causes Scots, Blacks, and Seminoles
The Firm
The Valences Shift William Augustus Bowles--The Second Act Bowles and Ellicott
"Execute Him on the Spot" The Fox Is Run to Earth
Chapter 11144
The Firm Steps Forward
Deerskins, Rum, and Land Indian Yeomen and Governor Sargent's Lost Cause
Yankee Yeomen
Chapter 12152
Jeffersonian Strategy and Jeffersonian Agents
Jefferson and Wilkinson Wilkinson's Clients
The Firm Adapts and Collects Wilkinson, Forbes, and Dearborn
Debt for Land The Accounts of Silas Dinsmoor
The Firm Wraps Things Up Andrew Jackson Takes Charge, with Some Help from Benjamin Hawkins
Part 4 Agents of the Master Organism: Assistants to the Plantation System 169
Chapter 13173
Fulwar Skipwith in Context
Skipwith the Jeffersonian Toussaint's Yeoman Republic
The Career of Fulwar Skipwith The Quasi War and Spoliation
James Monroe's First Mission to France Skipwith, the Livingstons, and Louisiana Cotton The Chancellor, Indolent Maroons, and Thomas Sumter Mister Sumter Is Shocked
The Third Article
Skipwith and the Floridas Consul Skipwith Goes to Jail
Chapter 14193
Destiny by Intention
The Adventures of George Mathews War, Commerce, and Race
Assisters and Resisters The Green Flag of Florida
Chapter 15205
Louisiana and Another Class of Virginians The Third Opportunity Reconsidered
The Hillhouse Debates
Chapter 16217
The Virginians of Louisiana Decide the Future of the Land Out of the Hills
The Kemper Outrage
1809-1810 Skipwith and Randolph
Complexities in Baton Rouge Skipwith at Bay
Haiti Again
Skipwith's Florida
Epilogue 235
The Jeffersonian Legacy: The Civil War and the Homestead Act Statesmanship and Self-Deception
Final Thoughts The Economics of Land Use
Appendix 245
Another Stream Jefferson, Madison, Adam Smith, and the Chesapeake Cities The Romans, Armed Occupation, and the Homestead Act Jefferson and the Ordinances of 1784 and 1787-89
Debt and Land Jefferson's Doctrine of Usufruct
Tribes, Land, and Ireland Creeks, Seminoles, and Numbers
The Livingstons and West Florida The Claiborne-Clark Duel
Fulwar Skipwith and Andrew Jackson
Notes 262
Bibliographic Note 307
Bibliography 312
Index 336
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