From Publishers Weekly
Whatever happened to the great Commonwealth of Virginia? Dunn (Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800
) investigates how Virginia fell from being the most advanced and vibrant of the 18th-century American states to being among the new country's most stultified and parochial. Dunn points out that four of the first five American presidents were Virginians, and it was often supposed in the early Republic that, in the words of one politician, the Old Dominion had hatched "a systematic design of perpetually governing the country." By the 1820s, however, the commonwealth's once thriving economy had shuddered to a halt, its aristocratic planters were defaulting on their considerable debts, many lived in poverty and visitors from the industrializing, bustling Northeast noticed that everything was dirty and dilapidated—even Monticello and Mount Vernon. Dunn attributes Virginia's downfall to a combination of its ruling elite adhering to a "gentlemanly" way of life, its obsession with states' rights and the retention of slavery. These factors, Dunn says, fostered an atmosphere of indolence and tedious provincialism that condemned the Old Dominion to the status of a has-been champion musing nostalgically on the pleasures of the past. By focusing intently on the stresses within a single state, Dunn's is an admirable guide to those perplexed by the eventual sundering of the entire Union. (June)
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The Virginia of the early 1800s was falling far behind northern states in economic dynamism and political heft. In this provocative exploration, Dunn explains that Old Dominion's elite was aware of its decline, and she delves into their moves toward reform. All failed, but the attempts to revive the state represent a historical alternative to the continuation of slavery and social stagnation. As context to her narration of two arenas where reformists made their case--an 1829 state constitutional convention, and, in the wake of the Nat Turner insurrection of 1831, another convention on emancipation--Dunn explains Virginians' self-conception of their society. Cultured leisure and hospitality were extolled, and the society's foundation in black slavery was defended. She also considers the political views of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison after they left the presidency, which trended away from nationalism, toward states' rights, and resulted in acquiescence in the somnolent status quo. Helping her readers visualize affairs with descriptions of dilapidated ports and worn-out farmland, Dunn renders the antebellum atmosphere with intellectual acuity. Gilbert TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved