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History Book Club

Join History Book Club for a great deal on DOMINION OF MEMORIES

Think of Virginia at the founding of the American Republic. It was the largest state with the greatest population. As Henry Adams, observed its leaders were “equal to any standard of excellence known to history.” George Washington, the Father of the Country, Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, James Madison the key member of the Constitutional Convention, James Monroe, the last member of the Virginia Dynasty of presidents, and John Marshall, the greatest jurist the nation ever produced. But after these men, there were others too of high rank: George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Edmund Randolph, a governor and then Washington's attorney general, George Wythe, the great jurist and teacher, and Patrick Henry, governor and fierce opponent of the Constitution.

Susan Dunn's Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, & the Decline of Virginia tells the compelling and tragic story of how and why the Commonwealth went from being first in the nation to a poor rural backwater of depleted lands and citizens unable to pay their debts by the end of the Virginia Dynasty (and things got no better in the ensuing decades leading to the Civil War). As the Tidewater aristocracy watched, Virginia became an exporting state. It sent slaves to the South and talented whites to the North and West. Indeed, well over 200 members of the United States Congress were born in Virginia prior to 1810, but moved and were elected from other states.

Virginia's problems were multifold. Above all was slavery and its dedication to a rural plantation economy. The Tidewater elite, along with Jefferson, could not continence a world without slaves. Second, was a limited franchise with two-thirds excluded from the franchise and an inability of voters to select local officials. Those wealthy enough to enjoy the franchise loathed taxation and feared that if the franchise were extended non-slaveholders would impose a tax on slaves. Even after Virginia adopted a new constitution in 1830, the dominance of the Tidewater elite was guaranteed. Third, was an identification with the Commonwealth and a related coolness toward any national vision. Thus, Virginians placed the blame for the Commonwealth's problems on the federal government. Tariffs, not slavery, they asserted, created their problems. Finally, there was a fervent desire to freeze the status quo. Progress—or change—was a per se evil to be arrested at all costs. The results were high rates of illiteracy, poor infrastructure, and limited manufacturing. William Branch Giles, the governor in 1827, expressed the ruling elites' views perfectly when he pronounced that “Government, rightly understood, is a passive, not an active, machine.”

Susan Dunn has written a sprightly, wonderful book. It is full of insights about a generation of leaders who consciously chose not to improve agriculture, not to fund education, not to expand the franchise—not to be like the North. Dominion of Memories is a must for anyone interested in Thomas Jefferson in retirement, the ante bellum South, or the early Republic.

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