Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land,
Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase
Roger G. Kennedy, Oxford University Press, 2003; ISBN
0-19-515347-2; 350 pp.; $30.00 (cloth).
, 2004: Using a series of fascinating anecdotes and bold
propositions, Roger Kennedy's Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause weaves
together a rich cast of characters to produce "a book about
that descent--by no means inevitable--from light to dark,"
the transformation of Jefferson's hope for a republic of free-holding
yeoman farmers into a slaveholding plantation aristocracy (p. 28).
For Kennedy, who formerly directed both the National Park Service
and the National American History Museum, this moral outrage has
added saliency due to the terrible effects that plantation slavery
had on the land and on the American Indians and yeoman farmers who
inhabited it. Virginians'--and especially Jefferson's--role in key
"political decisions, made by narrow majorities" ultimately,
Kennedy argues, set the course for slavery's success, the South's
economic backwardness and, he implies, the Civil War (p. 2).
Those familiar with the work of William Freehling, David Brion Davis,
and Paul Finkelman will not be surprised that Jefferson's commitment
to the abolition of slavery was deeper in mind than in heart or
action. Kennedy himself seems less than convinced that Jefferson
ever seriously considered emancipation to be a real alternative.
He mentions Jefferson's racial prejudice and fear of free blacks,
but to these traditional arguments Kennedy adds a psychological
explanation central to his analysis. The loss of his father early
in his life made Jefferson an "uninitiated man," perpetually
seeking the "sympathy and love from a band of brothers,"
especially those who sought the continuation and extension of slavery
(pp. 34-37). Such a hypothesis would be difficult for anyone to
prove, though it does exemplify the depth with which Kennedy wants
his reader to contemplate his characters. It is just as likely that
the acknowledged fragility of union itself prevented not just Jefferson
but most national figures, North and South, from directly or immediately
challenging slavery's existence. It should also be noted that, for
Jefferson and many of his contemporaries, the extension of slavery
westward was not necessarily seen as inimical to the gradual emancipation
of slavery. As Kennedy rightly points out, the continued profitability
of cotton in the Lower South eventually ensured the long-term economic
vitality of slavery. Yet even after Jefferson's death, political
economists and supporters of African Colonization continued to sustain
the belief that diffusion remained the best and most practical way
to bring about a more "natural" and peaceful end to slavery.
A deeper appreciation for the varying degrees of pro- and anti-slavery
thought in the early national and antebellum period would have led
to a more nuanced understanding of Jefferson's and the nation's
own complicated (if still uncourageous) thinking on the issue. Ever
a moralist, however, there is little room for gray in Kennedy's
Such contrasts also inform his depiction of the damaging effects
of plantation slavery on the land and non-slaveholding people of
the Southeast. The viability of cotton in climates below one thousand
feet in altitude along with Britain's conscious efforts at so-called
"textile colonial-imperialism" perpetuated a plantation
economy that stripped the native peoples of their land and the land
of its nutrients (pp. 55-59, 97). King Cotton, described as "an
overmastering organism," indelibly shaped the political, economic,
and environmental developments of the period (pp. 169-70). Kennedy's
arguments bring a fresh Atlantic context to southern studies and
rightly elevate cotton's importance for shaping political and economic
commitments in the early national period.
His interpretation, however, frequently conflates unforeseen long-term
consequences with intentionality in a way that misleads rather than
clarifies the developments and decisions he examines. Kennedy asserts
that Jefferson served Britain's "invisible" commercial
empire more effectively than any other American statesmen (p. 166).
Hamiltonian Federalists, in contrast, are portrayed as the true
visionaries seeking a diversified economy and economic independence.
(It should also be noted that Kennedy believes Hamilton rather than
Jefferson served the true interests of yeoman farmers). Yet Jeffersonian-Republicans,
as Drew McCoy, Jacob Crowley, Doron Ben-Atar, and John Nelson show
us, sought to accomplish precisely the opposite. Anglophobia
constituted a central, or perhaps the central, plank of the Republican
Party and shaped a political economy (albeit unsuccessful) that
was aimed at weaning the new nation from commercial dependence on
Britain. It is true that most cotton planters came under the Republican
political tent largely because of the pro-expansionist policies
Kennedy identifies. But Jeffersonian-Republicans, even more than
Federalists, also proposed neo-mercantilist measures targeting Britain;
supported small- and, after 1807, large-scale manufacturing (including
cotton spinning); and ultimately, fought what many conceived of
as "a second war of independence" against Britain. Kennedy
almost completely ignores these issues and the rich historiography
of early national political economy and foreign policy. Cutting
against the interpretation of John C. A. Stagg, Richard Brown, and
others, Kennedy interprets the War of 1812, the Louisiana Purchase,
and the cession of the Floridas as emerging simply from an unquenchable
thirst for more cotton lands (see especially pp. 66, 193-204).
Such an approach obscures what may be the more interesting question
of how cotton planters themselves struggled to define and preserve
their place within national party politics and international geopolitics.
If Jefferson is, at least partially, the villain in this "tragedy,"
the work is not without its "heroes." At the most general
level they come in the form of those best positioned to resist the
onward march of plantation slavery and King Cotton, namely Indians
and hard-working yeoman farmers. Though recognizing their flaws,
Kennedy's approach to both groups borders on romanticism. The reader
is told that economically "yeomen and Indians had more in common
than planters and Indians" (p. 9), and Kennedy implies that
the yeoman and Indian had more in common than yeoman and planter.
On a personal note, as the descendant of mid-western livestock farmers,
I would like to think the best of the yeoman class. While Kennedy
is probably right in suggesting that the family farms and Native
American agriculture were considerably easier on the land than the
slave plantation, historical reality is more complicated. Historians
like Joyce Chaplin, Rachel Klein, and others have demonstrated that
many yeoman farmers actively sought to acquire what their eastern
slaveholding brethren had, more slaves, more land, and better access
to international markets. Whether in South Carolina in the 1790s
or Alabama and Mississippi in the 1830s it was typically the yeoman
areas that desired to keep the access to foreign and domestic slave
trade open. Jefferson may rightly be blamed for betraying his own
imagined Arcadia of free-holding farmers; he cannot, however, be
easily condemned for betraying the yeoman himself.
The same may not be said of the failure of Jeffersonians to accommodate
Kennedy's other victims, the southern tribes and those supposedly
representing their interests. Particularly attractive to the author
are Alexander McGillivray, described as a Creek leader of mixed
European-Indian ancestry, and William Bowles, a Tory resister to
American westward expansion. In contrast to Claudio Saunt, Kennedy
portrays such individuals as visionaries willing to imagine a multi-racial
nation and treat the land with more respect than the slaveholding
cotton planters who replaced them. Their removal from the scene,
Kennedy argues, allowed agents of Virginia, in league with the multinational
firm of Panton, Leslie, and Forbes, to implement Jefferson's desired
strategy of Indian removal through indebtedness. Not all experts
will agree with Kennedy's interpretation of what took place on the
ground and behind the scenes, but the complex political drama that
Kennedy evocatively describes is, in this reviewer's opinion, the
most interesting part of this book.
It is probably unfair to criticize a book, particularly one of such
a broad scope, for leaving out parts of the story--even this lengthy
review cannot cover all of Kennedy's thought-provoking claims. Nevertheless,
it is remarkable how small a role the primary seedbed for the Southwest--the
Southeast and especially South Carolina--plays in Kennedy's narrative.
Instead, Kennedy inflates the importance of cotton for Virginia's
economy. A note in the appendix acknowledges the omission, identifying
space as the culprit. Still, one wishes that Kennedy would have
gone with his initial instinct and told a story "along two
parallel lines, one proceeding southwestward from Virginia and the
other emanating from Wade Hampton's South Carolina" (p. 245).
The result would have been a more complicated and accurate portrait
of the people and politics of the Cotton South.
In the final analysis Jefferson's Lost Cause does more
to raise interesting questions than to provide convincing answers.
Kennedy's emphasis on the environmental and political impact that
the Anglo-southern cotton trade had--though oversimplified and disproportionately
emphasizing Virginia--represents a rich area for further study.
It will be difficult for academic historians to overlook the book's
unsupported speculations, scarcity of documentation, general lack
of chronology, and unabashed moralizing. These criticisms aside,
the spirit of Kennedy's intervention, his appreciation of historical
contingency, and his desire to bring the history of the land and
the diverse people living on it to a wider audience are commendable.
In this alone the public and the profession are indebted to the
continued intellectual and literary contributions of a long-time
Brian Schoen, Department of History, University of Virginia
. Paul Finkelman, "Thomas Jefferson and Slavery: 'Treason
Against the Hopes of the World,'" in Jeffersonian Legacies,
ed. Peter Onuf (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia,
1993), pp. 181-224; David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in
the Age of Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975,
1999), p. 177; and William Freehling, The Road to Disunion, vol.
1, Secessionists at Bay (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990),
. See, for example, John E. Crowley, The Privileges of Independence:
Neomercantilism and the American Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1993), especially pp. 140, 144-145, 159; Merrill
Peterson, "Thomas Jefferson and Commercial Policy, 1785-1793,"
William and Mary Quarterly 22 (October 1965): pp. 584-610; Drew
McCoy, The Elusive Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, 1980), especially pp. 174-178; Doron Ben-Atar, The Origins
of Jeffersonian Commercial Policy and Diplomacy (New York: St. Martin's
Press, 1993); William Appleman Williams, "The Age of Mercantilism:
An Interpretation of the American Political Economy, 1763 to 1828,"
William and Mary Quarterly 15 (October 1958): pp. 419-437; and John
Nelson, Liberty and Property: Political Economy and Policymaking
in the New Nation, 1789-1812 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1989), especially pp. 54, 135, 146, 173.
. Roger Brown, The Republic in Peril: 1812 (New York: W.W. Norton,
1971); John C. A. Stagg, Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy,
and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830 (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1983). Stagg's detailed examination
of the Madison administration's handling of Mexico in 1812 and 1813
further undermines Kennedy's claim that the quest for cotton lands
blinded Republicans to other geopolitical realities. "The Madison
Administration and Mexico: Reinterpreting the Gutiérrez-Magee
Raid of 1812-1813," William and Mary Quarterly 59:2 (April
2002), pp. 449-480. See also James Lewis, The American Union and
the Problem of Neighborhood: The United States and the Collapse
of the Spanich Empire, 1783-1829 (Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1998).
. Joyce Chaplin, "Creating a Cotton South," Journal
of Southern History 57:2 (May, 1991), pp. 171-200; Rachel Klein,
The Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class
in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760-1808 (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1990); Patrick S. Brady, "The Slave
Trade and Sectionalism in South Carolina, 1787-1808," The Journal
of Southern History 38:4 (November, 1972), p. 616; Edwin Miles,
Jacksonian Democracy in Mississippi (New York: Da Capo Press, 1970),
pp. 25-26; and John Thornton, Politics and Power in a Slave Society:
Alabama, 1800-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,
1978), pp. 319-320.
. Claudio Saunt, A New Order of Things: Property, Power and the
Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733-1816 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1999).