Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia, by Susan Dunn (Preston S. Parish ’41 Third Century Professor in the Arts and Humanities)

Critics of the President’s statist policies are often dismayed to see policy discussionsrapidly devolve into speculation about their motivations, with their critiques ultimately equated with racism. Their complaints themselves go awry, however, when they attribute this to a political “playbook” concocted by the White House, or the Democratic party. In truth, it’s a trend with much wider roots in our society and is frequently most visible in academic scholarship, as otherwise interesting studies are short-circuited by facile connections between racism, bigotry, and ideas the author disagrees with. Sadly, Professor Susan Dunn’s Dominion of Memories is one work that so strays.

Despite a couple of intriguing starting points in the sociology of slave ownership and the effects of the moral ambivalence of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Dunn ultimately ends up attributing every “non-progressive” policy imaginable to the racism of slaveowners. As a result, what could have been a forceful, if narrower argument devolves into little more than an interesting collection of stories and quotes. Dominion of Memories begins by outlining a simple, but interesting question: For 32 of the first 36 years under the Constitution, the Presidency was filled by a Virginian. Influential Virginians of the early Republic also included Chief Justice John Marshall, George Mason, Patrick Henry, and numerous others. Yet since then, only John Tyler has been President, and after Marshall and the three other Virginians of the early Supreme Court, the state produced only one Justice between the 1840s and 1971. So what happened? Dunn’s answer is economic decline, driven by slavery. Dominion of Memories explores how that decline unfolded, and it initially seems likely to give that story a personal feel, by connecting it to Jefferson and Madison, early supporters of some of the intellectual ideas relied on by southern secessionists on the road to civil war.

Those ideas, explored fully, would make for a compelling book. But Dominion of Memories quickly gets sidetracked from any semblance of a narrative structure, aiming instead to draw a political conclusion from each chapter, and perhaps as a result, Dunn gets only an inch deep into the most promising avenues, never really supporting any thesis or argument with more than a couple of associated quotations from an inconsistent set of primary sources. Numerous promising threads are ignored in favor of this approach — leaving the reader eager for more detail about how Virginia’s trajectory may have paralleled the ebbing fortunes of Mt. Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier or how the concentration of slaves in some regions of the state depressed property values in those areas relative to places with fewer slaves.

There is plenty that’s good in Dominion of Memories. Professor Dunn makes keen use of historical observers to chronicle how the leisure of the slaveowner became the cultural idea even for poor white farmers, leaving Virginia as an island of sloth in a nation better known for its Protestant work ethic. And she draws out how Jefferson and Madison did more than just support nullification through their authorship of the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, identifying secessionist passages in their private letters from both early and later dates.

But Dominion of Memories rarely gets beyond the feel of an introduction that assembles a few quotations to support the ideas being espoused. Thus, a few private letters and one Virginian’s statement that a good library in Virginia could give as good an education as the Yale University of the 1830s become a lynchpin of the idea that hostility to higher education stems from racist fears about the abolitionist movement. The presence of 57 books about agriculture in George Washington’s 900-title library is compared to a few, less-specific statements about the paucity of such volumes elsewhere, to support a conclusion that readership dwindled after Washington’s time And the book quickly postulates that Virginians equated Jefferson’s agrarian ideal of “yeoman farmers” with the “aristocratic idyll of a leisurely, gracious” plantation life based on one or two quotations. Virginians may well have engaged in the mental gymastics required to place the ennui of the slaveowner on par with the sweat of the yeoman, but the reader never gets to see the evidence.

Instead of depth, Dominion of Memories makes breezy links between opposition to “progressive” public policy and the fears of slaveowners that their human property would be taxed or taken away. By being for slavery, and thus against federal authority, she writes, Virginians became against “a modern, prosperous, and developed state.” In Dunn’s
view, only “energetic planning and active government” could promote education, “encourage industry and banking,” develop “civic institutions,” develop and “diversify the economy,” and promote democracy. Within this framework, Dominion of Memories suggests that everything from a bicameral state legislature to the absence of a national, American university and opposition to illegal immigration have been policies of racism. And as with the main subject, the links traced between these policies are thin. That’s not to say there isn’t a case to be made for some of what Dominion of Memories would like to argue — but it isn’t found here. Rather, policies of the early 19th century are anachronistically evaluated as if the absence of government action equates to the absence of private action as well. Thus, when societies of agricultural innovation and demonstration throughout the state arise, promote education, host fairs and prizes, she declares the movement a failure in part because the legislature declines to establish a “state department of agriculture.” Absent legislative action, Dunn suggests that farmers simply had no way to improve their agricultural techniques — notwithstanding their eagerness to join and support the agricultural associations she describes.

Further undercutting the strength of the book is the failure to ever discuss and refute any contrary evidence that would challenge its arguments. For example, Dominion of Memories notes that Alabama and Mississippi experienced boom times even as Virginia struggled, and suggests it was because of booming cotton shipments to a strong export market. Yet presumably the cotton agriculture of the Deep South was just as reliant on slave labor as the tobacco economy of Virginia. Little light is shed on Virginia’s standing relative to virtually any other southern state, as almost all of the comparisons and contrasts that Dunn draws are to northern and midwestern states. Similarly, Dominion of Memories argues that a principal cause of Virginia’s stagnation was its failure to invest in canals, then later, in railroads. Yet Dunn cites canals such as the Wabash and Erie canal in the Midwest, totally ignoring that the Wabash and Erie — like most canal projects that sought to mirror New York’s Erie (which, remember, was originally known as “Clinton’s Folly”) — was a total economic failure constructed at a staggering cost and eclipsed by railroads almost immediately after completion. As for railroads, Dominion of Memories faults the geography of railroad-building in Virginia, brushing aside the state’s majority ownership interest in those railroads and blaming the government for not exercising total control. No consideration is given of the state’s management or mis-management, or how this ownership structure compared to other states.

Dominion of Memories particularly disappoints when contrasted to Professor Dunn’s superior earlier books, including Jefferson’s Second Revolution and her collaborations with James MacGregor Burns. Hopefully her next book, Roosevelt’s Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party, will be a return to form when released this October.

Eph notes: Readers will appreciate the cameo by Mark Hopkins, who appears during his student days taking time away from Williamstown to teach poor children in the Virginia of the 1820s. And the Acknowledgments section recognizes an array of Ephs, as befits a faculty book.

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