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

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

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by Roger G. Kennedy
     
 

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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… See more details below

Overview

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:
9780198034988
Publisher:
NetLibrary, Incorporated
Publication date:
03/06/2003
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
1,213,706
File size:
1 MB

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