Book Review: Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause

Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause:  Land, Farmers, Slavery, And The Louisiana Purchase, by Roger G. Kennedy

The biggest mistake the author makes is in the title–and it may be the publisher’s fault and not his own to attempt to cash in on hostility towards the Lost Cause and Jefferson’s role in prolonging slavery in the United States and expanding its spread through territorial acquisitions.  The title of this book infers that Jefferson’s cause was for free yeomen to spread over the continent after native inhabitants had been disposed of by treaties and moved off of desirable lands, but that seems to have been mere pandering, while Jefferson’s real interest was in the spread of plantation monoculture and the illusion of being non-capitalist farmers indebted to British (and Yankee) manufacturers for the necessities of life while inflicting misery upon millions of blacks and destroying the land and economic base of the land of the South in the process.  I happen to find a lot about this book very easy to relate to and agree with, as decisions have consequences and Jefferson’s decision not to stand up to the planter class and urge them to act in a manner that was consistent with the long-term health of the land and of its people and according to his and their ideals had serious and negative consequences that we are still paying for to this day.

This book is about 250 pages long and is divided into four parts and fifteen chapters along with other supplementary material.  After acknowledgements and a chronology, the author discusses Mr. Jefferson’s relationship with the land, including a discussion on the relationship between land and slavery and the type of farming it encouraged (1), a contrast between the approaches of Jefferson and Washington (2), a discussion of the psychology and politics of Jefferson as a planter who sought to appeal to yeomen without really wanting to encourage them (3), a discussion of the economics of plantation agriculture (4) in dependence to manufacturers and bankers, the powers of the earth in land speculation (5), and Jefferson’s opportunities and the land (6).  The second part of the book shortly discusses the invisible empire of imperialism (7) and textile geopolitics (8) that Jefferson was a part of without realizing it.  This leads into a discussion of the resistance to the plantation system (III), including chapters on those who supported Indian statehood (9), the experience of Bowles and the Seminoles (10), the contrast between Indian and Yankee yeomen (11), and Jefferson’s strategy for expanding the plantation world into the Deep South (12).  The last part of the book looks at those who were assistants to the plantation system (IV), including a discussion of Fulwar Skipwith (13) and his background and early career, the premature attempt to seize Florida (14), manifest destiny in the old Southwest (15), and the decision of Virginians about how the land would be used in the South (16).  An epilogue discusses the legacy of Jefferson in the Civil War and the Homestead Act, as well as an appendix with a discussion of various interesting things that did not fit in with the main narrative of the author, after which there are notes, a bibliography, and an index.

The hunger for adoration by other people tends to lead people astray.  This is a lesson that we can see poignantly when it comes to Jefferson’s life, and how he felt unable to act on his ideals because it would harm his popularity with the planter class he was a part of.  Jefferson’s inability to accept being ruled by others and his desire to be approved of by his peers marks him as the sort of liberal that many people find in the contemporary world, but that which marks him as being beyond the sympathies of contemporary politics is precisely what allowed him to be respected by his peers.  This book is full of discussion about the patterns by which Jefferson and his contemporaries wasted the land in stark contrast to the land-friendly behavior in farming by white and red yeomen whose agricultural was less profitable but far less destructive.  The author spends a lot of time expressing sympathy for the people involved in making decisions but has some harsh judgments against Jefferson and his peers for the destructive and unwise course they pushed the South towards.  This condemnation is just.  But all generations stand condemned before the bar of history for their sins, and we will be no different.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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