From Publishers Weekly
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. 25 illus.
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"Fresh, endlessly fascinating, and altogether extraordinary.... A sweeping, continent-wide reinterpretation of early US history.... Thematically rich and full of subtle arguments, Kennedy's study forces a reconsideration of accepted views. It couldn't come at a better time, given the soon-to-be widely commemorated bicentenary of the Lewis and Clark expedition."--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Roger Kennedy's throws down the gauntlet in his engaging new book. Was the freedom-loving, slave-holding Thomas Jefferson responsible for the coming of the Civil War? Kennedy's bold argument will certainly stir up controversy among the specialists, but it will also force them to rethink some of the most important questions in the history of the early American republic. Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause
is vintage Kennedy, serving up a characteristically rich offering of fascinating stories, deft character sketches, and provocative conclusions."--Peter Onuf, University of Virginia
"Mr. Kennedy's astringency forces us to reconsider settled opinions, always a good thing."--Wall Street Journal
"Though in many ways a willful architect of the nation, Thomas Jefferson failed to build the foundation he envisioned in his heart of hearts: an Arcadian society of small farmers. His dream was trampled by a parade of vanities, intrigues, and missed opportunities, all marching lock step with the determinations of social history and natural history. Roger Kennedy highlights this fascinating story for us--he weaves it with stunning erudition, and delivers it with bounteous wit. Kennedy provides novel insights on Jefferson and numerous contemporaries, and he plows bare the roots of American land policy, revealing factors that are still germane after two centuries."--Daniel J. Gelo, University of Texas, San Antonio
"From this world of filibusters and spies, slaves and masters, tribal leaders and imperial politicians, Roger Kennedy has assembled as fascinating a cast as American history has ever produced."--Richard White, Stanford University
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