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Eph Bookshelf #6: Dominion of Memories

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.

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All the President’s Meddling

An op-ed in today’s NYT from Professor Susan Dunn:

It is not yet clear how extensive President Obama’s plans are for intervening in party primaries. Nor is it yet clear if his criteria for picking favorites are based on ideology, as Roosevelt’s were, or if the White House is simply focused on choosing the most popular candidates and winning a few more elections. So far, the president’s support for Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and his desire to dump Governor Paterson would seem to indicate that his approach is purely pragmatic. But in either case, by meddling in state and local politics, he risks fueling the same indignation that Roosevelt did in 1938.

Read the whole thing here.

(thanks to Parent ’12 for the link)

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