- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003


By Roger G. Kennedy

Oxford, $30, 350 pages, illus.


In “Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause,” Roger Kennedy thrusts under our noses another one of history’s What-If’s. What if Thomas Jefferson had practiced what he preached? That is to say, had Jefferson committed himself to entrench in the West the kind of yeoman farmers he was always extolling, might the spread of slavery have been arrested and the War Between the States averted?

As it was, according to Mr. Kennedy, our third president gave the slave-owning planter class its way: He backed its desire for expansion of slave territory. From east to west the planters moved as fragile soil wore out; the peculiar institution of slavery moved right along with them.

“Had [Jefferson] exerted himself, the Southern land might have become a seed-bed for family farmers.” Likewise: “The plantation system might have been constrained before it became so proud as to lead its leaders to sunder the Union.”

Instead, “the planters’ lust for land was slaked, and those among them who had worn out the productivity of their soil for their chosen staple crops were provided new land to wear out and new markets for the sale of their surplus slaves.”

Clearly there are things here worth talking about. Whether they warrant the grand-theme approach is another matter. Retrospective theories always look neat and clean on paper. It is worth bearing in mind that the circumstances out of which such theories grow were in the beginning the stuff of daily life, often with consequences unforseeable past sundown.

Mr. Kennedy, director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, as well as a former director of the National Park Service, would obviously agree that Jefferson and his contemporaries never asked themselves the precise question: “Will our land policies avert Gettysburg and Cold Harbor?” For all that, he writes at times as though the men of that day should have forseen what was coming.

The planters were getting the upper hand. Couldn’t somebody have done something? Why, especially, did not the philosopher of yeoman-agrarianism — Jefferson himself (if you exclude John Taylor of Caroline) — do something?

The reasons that Mr. Kennedy adduces were not particularly savory, by 21st-century standards. First, Jefferson courted the favor of the planter class. Likewise he “could not accept the concept of a multiracial society wherein people of color would coexist with free people of his complexion; he did not share the high opinion of free blacks asserted by ‘noisy pretenders to exclusive humanity.’”

Yet large questions linger. Was it — for one thing — so very odd that a Virginia planter, even one with visible doubts about the worth of slavery, should have failed to frame a plan injurious to it? No one else at the time seemed to know what should be done about slavery. A very human tendency at times of uncertainty is that of muddling through, in the Micawberian hope that “something will turn up” — as sometimes it actually does.

A second question: Was the indicated course of action doable? Jefferson, Mr. Kennedy relates, failed to support urbanization of the South. Should he have forseen that failure to urbanize in the Northern manner meant prolonged dependence on the cash crop of cotton, hence on slavery? But Jefferson, for reasons he regarded as right and proper, mistrusted cities and factories and was unlikely to promote their growth.

Mr. Kennedy declares that the Southern Indians, with their yeoman-like agricultural know-how, should have been left in place rather than kicked out to make room for the planters. Well, possibly. Was this likely, though, given early-19th-century conditions, or is it more an early-21st-century conceit — a Good Idea that long-dead people could easily have latched onto save for their inability to read their unborn descendants’ minds?

Owing to the brazen confusion of the historical period Mr. Kennedy describes — a time heavily populated by rogues, plotters, and scoundrels — it is a story worth recalling as the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase looms. You have to be careful of the moral, that’s all.

Not quite all, actually. The narrative can bog down in the sumptuous detail that Mr. Kennedy marshals. We spend in the beginning, for instance, an enjoyable 78 pages with Jefferson, only to lose sight of him for long stretches thereafter as the author wades into long disquisitions on how the Cotton South was drawn into “the British imperial web” and how the Southern Indians were euchred out of their land.

Mr. Kennedy, who labored on this book for 10 years, is a good, if prolix, writer. But he has given us both more and less than we need for walking with him on this particular journey.

William Murchison is Radford Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Baylor University.

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