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Dominion of Memories : Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia
Fora time the commonwealth of Virginia led the nation. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Marshall - each came from the state. For thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of the existence of the American republic, a Virginian held the office of President. And yet by the middle of the nineteenth century, Virginia was little more than a byword for slavery, provincialism and poverty. What happened? In Dominion of Memories, historian Susan Dunn chronicles the precipitous decline of what was once America's most promising state. While the North rapidly industrialized and democratized, Virginia lay captive to a firmly entrenched political elite that turned its back on the accelerating modern world. Two of Virginia's greatest sons, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both observed and exemplified this divergence. Towards the end of his life, Jefferson became first and foremost a Virginian as he retreated from his earlier cosmopolitism in favour of an agrarian ideal. Madison on the other hand, rejected this vision and warned Virginians that their burgeoning parochialism would lead ultimately to disunion.
Whatever happened to the great Commonwealth of Virginia? Dunn (Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800) investigates how Virginia fell from being the most advanced and vibrant of the 18th-century American states to being among the new country's most stultified and parochial. Dunn points out that four of the first five American presidents were Virginians, and it was often supposed in the early Republic that, in the words of one politician, the Old Dominion had hatched "a systematic design of perpetually governing the country." By the 1820s, however, the commonwealth's once thriving economy had shuddered to a halt, its aristocratic planters were defaulting on their considerable debts, many lived in poverty and visitors from the industrializing, bustling Northeast noticed that everything was dirty and dilapidated--even Monticello and Mount Vernon. Dunn attributes Virginia's downfall to a combination of its ruling elite adhering to a "gentlemanly" way of life, its obsession with states' rights and the retention of slavery. These factors, Dunn says, fostered an atmosphere of indolence and tedious provincialism that condemned the Old Dominion to the status of a has-been champion musing nostalgically on the pleasures of the past. By focusing intently on the stresses within a single state, Dunn's is an admirable guide to those perplexed by the eventual sundering of the entire Union. (June) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 20, 2007
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