MR. JEFFERSON'S LOST CAUSE: Land, Farms, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase

Roger G. Kennedy, Author . Oxford Univ. $30 (376p) ISBN 978-0-19-515347-7

This aggravating book, published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, has considerable value despite itself. Like the Shenandoah River, Kennedy can't go from place to place in a straight line as he makes up words and terms ("preemptive humanism"). Yet amid the disorder and occasional pretentiousness, there's serious intent and plausible argument. Kennedy, director emeritus of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and author of Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson, believes that, while human decisions created the American plantation system and its slave laboring force, the spread of slavery had its own momentum. Much of that, he argues, can be attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the tragic figure in this drama. Kennedy shrewdly characterizes Jefferson as someone who couldn't finish projects he started or free himself from dilemmas of his own creating, such as the purchase of an inland empire destined to be filled, not with dependent farmers—Jefferson's ideal—but with slaves, cinching slavery's hold on the nation. Of all the curious characters here, none is more central than the previously little-known Fulwar Skipwith, a Virginian who fetched up in France, Florida and Louisiana. Kennedy takes the aspirations and wanderings of Skipwith, whose tale is worth the book, to symbolize the hold of Virginia's ways over the entire South. Kennedy is at his best when writing of farming, soil exhaustion and the environmental degradation brought on by the plantation system. But for learning about the nation's doubling of territory in 1803, general readers will do much better to turn to Charles Cerami's Jefferson's Great Gamble (Forecasts, Jan. 27). 25 illus. (Mar.)

Reviewed on: 02/03/2003
Release date: 03/01/2003
Genre: Nonfiction
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