If you have ever wondered, as I have, what possibly could have happened to the Virginia of the Founders’ generation that saw it fall from prominence and then emerge some several decades later hosting the capital of the Confederacy, then I would highly recommend that you read Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia, by Susan Dunn. In a very well-written account of these bookends to Virginia’s history, Dunn brilliantly traces the path from Virginia’s dominance of the national stage through its slow decline into a provincial backwater mired in bad roads, a regressive state constitution, sub-standard schools and intellectual decay that finds itself clinging to a proud celebration of an imaginary past rooted in an agrarian paradise while shrilly whining about northern industry and growing increasingly paranoiac about the advance of federal power. For anyone who has devoted time to a study of the antebellum south, it should come as no surprise that the centrality of slavery is the chief culprit in Virginia’s unravelling, but Dunn’s scholarship stands out in her exploration of the complexity and nuance that reveals beyond this a multiplicity of competing forces that seem to doom the “Old Dominion” to its humiliating tumble from eminence.
Once upon a time, Virginia and Massachusetts took the lead in forcing a divorce from their colonial mistress and, when independence was achieved, creating the new Republic from a league of states jealous of their own individual sovereignty that almost miraculously was transformed into a nation founded upon both representation and the rule of law. When it came to the forging of a new nation, Virginia truly was a land where giants walked. Three of the six key Founders – Jefferson, Madison and Washington — were Virginian, as well as a larger cast of prominent fellow citizens: Patrick Henry, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, Peyton Randolph, and James Monroe. Madison was one of the chief architects of the Constitution. Four of the first five Presidents hailed from the Old Dominion, as well as the highly consequential Chief Justice John Marshall who by defining judicial review essentially carved out the critical role of the Supreme Court as arbiter of constitutional law that it has played ever since. Could anyone have guessed that after James Monroe ended his second term as President in 1825 Virginia would essentially abdicate its central role in the nation? What could possibly have occurred to transform the Virginia of these larger-than-life figures that championed liberty to one some thirty-six years later that would take it out of the Union on a perilous course of secession to preserve and protect not liberty but the institution of slavery?
It turns out that the seeds of its decline were present at the creation. While Thomas Jefferson took the critical lead to turn Enlightenment Thought into statute – abolishing medieval anachronisms like entail and primogeniture that perpetuated hereditary wealth in the hands of a few, and passing truly progressive legislation that disestablished a state church and promoted freedom of religion – he and his spiritual kin were less successful with drafting a state constitution that was even close to democratic. As Dunn details, the Virginia state constitution that supplanted the colonial charter was cruelly regressive; long after other states had abandoned such requirements, the Old Dominion extended suffrage to only a very narrow band of property holders, so that most residents had literally no say in their government. Moreover, law was clearly tilted to favor not only the rich slave-owning plantation elite, but by virtue of that construction it placed virtually all authority in the Tidewater planters of the eastern portion of the state. As such, not only were less affluent whites excluded, essentially the entire western half of the state was disenfranchised. If you have ever wondered why the western geography of Virginia seceded from the state in the early days of the Confederacy and then joined the Union, the roots of it are right here. Yet, it was not simply the state constitution, but the fact that it empowered that Tidewater elite to ensure that tax laws favored them, that it resisted and forestalled any improvements to education or transportation or anything that might benefit anyone but their interests. And what were their interests? Basically, self-preservation and an almost bizarre fantasy of an idealized way of life that in fact never really existed except in their collective historical imagination. On the one hand, the rich slave-owning planter aristocracy saw no need to fund roads, canals or railroads to connect the more industrious western part of the state with the Tidewater, or to the predatory markets of the northern states they decried, even as their land lost value, their population hemorrhaged into fleeing emigrants, their schools succumbed to provincialism, their intellectual strength radically contracted as their book and journal publishing diminished. Both Jefferson and Madison decried the state constitution and ever hoped it would be rewritten as more democratic. It was a long time coming and Jefferson did not live to see the day, but a new state constitutional convention was convened in 1829. Although eighteenth century icons Madison and Monroe attended – Monroe colorfully still dressed in eighteenth century attire – it was tragically too late: despite his earlier jeremiads against the old regressive constitution, when it got down to the wire Madison caved and sided with the planters of his class so that the new vital organ of state government offered little but ineffectual saccharine reforms and power was retained by the same forces that had held the state back for decades.
For those who rightly recognize the centrality of slavery in the coming rebellion but fail to pay proper attention to simmering hostilities over states’ rights and tariffs, Dunn properly restores the balance. She wisely underscores that tariffs were likely unfair to agrarian Virginia and the south, and that all fears of an encroaching federal government were not fully unfounded, yet when she deconstructs their concerns it seems clear that much of their hyperbolic rhetoric lacked substance once again because they were acting in defense of a world that really never was. And in the real world, Virginia became simply a place most people did not want to remain in, even for the extended families of the planter elite who had such a romantic attachment to the land, a kind of feudal society ever oddly out of place for the revolutionary generation and beyond. So they left for schools in the north for a time, or they left permanently. Dunn also reminds us that Washington and Marshall – and Madison most of the time – were nationalists who rather than abandoning Virginia sought to further amalgamate her into the federal fabric they had helped to weave at the dawn of the Republic. Yet, in this they were left mostly disappointed.
That Madison and Jefferson are cited in the book’s subtitle is not a fanciful flourish to sell more copies: these two – in life and posthumously – are etched deeply into the historical record of Virginia from 1776 to 1861. From the start, there seems as if there were ever two competing political philosophies: the yeoman farmer with his plot of land jealously guarding his own sovereignty and that of his “country” — Virginia — free from the encroachments of others; and, the citizen of the Enlightenment that demanded liberty, equality, and democracy for all in a league with others to guarantee these rights as part of a nation that secured them. For those who have read his biographies – especially the magisterial American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis – it should come as little surprise that these two rival perspectives could not only be held by one person but sometimes could be held simultaneously by that same person, within the often brilliant intellectual schizophrenia of none other than Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a genius beset by contradictions, who championed liberty while excusing slavery, celebrated provincialism while calling for unity, demanded perpetual union while idealizing bloody revolution for each new generation. To this day, Jefferson – like the Bible – can be cited by just about anyone to support just about any cause. Madison, while often Jefferson’s right-hand man, was more circumspect and far more nationalistic. Both men were to leave an indelible stain in the record for those who claimed the right for nullification and secession as they took their respective turns authoring the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions in heated resistance to the hated Alien and Sedition Acts that were creatures of the Adams Administration in the 1790s. Madison, ever loyal to the union he helped forge, was to spend the rest of his life trying to live down his role in this affair. Meanwhile, other prominent Virginians like Washington and Marshall were unwavering Federalists who sought to strengthen that Union by attaching Virginia and the other states more firmly to its purposes.
The elephant in the room in Virginia, as in the rest of the antebellum south, was slavery. The very reason why the Jeffersonian vision of the independent yeoman farmer in an agrarian paradise was really so much smoke-and-mirrors was because it was only the wealthy planter elite of Jefferson’s class who could hope to make it work and only with legions of slaves and – most critically – it usually failed for them, as well. Jefferson was in debt and on the verge of ruin most of his life, as were much of his contemporaries. It was simply not a viable economic model, and
— deep down, as their writings reveal — they knew it! Meanwhile, the despised northern states of free labor zoomed ahead with wealth and industry and canals and trains and factories and booming cities – while even the richest planters had to routinely navigate ruined roads to get from point A to point B, their children were educated in New England colleges, and both their wealth and their numbers declined. Still, they not only stubbornly clung to this lifestyle but celebrated it as much as they resented their brethren in the north and they disrespected their labor. Here, as Dunn points out, Virginia had much in common with the rest of the slave states of the south: the nature of slavery as a cherished institution was that free labor among whites came to be despised.
And yet … from the start Jefferson and the Virginia Founders – slave-owners all – recognized the evils of their peculiar institution and sought to find a way to divest themselves of it. In his first draft of the Declaration, Jefferson termed slavery an “abominable crime,” and later famously framed the conundrum of hating slavery yet owning slaves to an analogy of holding a “wolf by the ears” – afraid of what might follow if you let it go. Like the state constitutional convention, Jefferson did not live to see the state debate ending slavery in its House of Delegates sessions of 1831-32, but his grandson was there along with a host of others decrying slavery and seeking gradual emancipation, albeit through colonization to Africa for all blacks, free and enslaved, to avoid a mixing of the races. Still, this was a historic moment for Virginia even more potentially consequential than the failed constitutional reforms of two years before. It is difficult to imagine how a Virginia without slaves could have later served as the seat of the Confederacy. Again, there was mighty rhetoric and high hopes. Again, all of it was dashed as the delegates ultimately chose to do nothing. As it was, it was a turning point of sorts, but of the wrong kind. As Dunn notes: “Indeed, the slavery debate had legitimized pro-slavery arguments, making it socially, intellectually, and morally acceptable to condone, defend, and even extol slavery.” Ironically, the tables had turned from the days when the Founders made excuses for participating in a great evil; from now on slavery would be advertised as a virtue. Madison later came to blame it on the abolitionists, presciently foreseeing that talk of abolition “. . . would have the reverse effect and incite southerners to speak out even more passionately in favor of slavery.” Of course, in retrospect, the Virginians – and the rest of the south – can only blame themselves.
As a new generation of pseudo-historians on the right have made strong attempts to resurrect the “Lost Cause” Myth of the Confederacy to falsely assert the chief cause of the war as a loyalty to states’ rights rather than the centrality of slavery, Dunn’s book is an especially useful tool for scholars willing to explore peripheral causes without losing sight of the fact that despite various clashes over policy, north and south, had there not been slavery there never could never have been a Civil War.
Dunn, a professor at Williams College, has written an outstanding book that anyone with an interest in the antebellum years should read, although it should be noted that some background in the subject is requisite in order the make the most out of it. As the last pages are turned, the reflective reader cannot help but sense a certain shadow descending as the tragedy of Richmond burning and Appomattox looms ahead, a dire penumbra clearly anticipated by brilliant minds like Jefferson and Madison who were despite their iconic genius just as clearly incapable of forestalling it.