13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 2008
In his preface Kevin Gutzman writes, "...I wanted to consider Virginia from the state level, because my understanding of the politics (broadly understood) of the period was that state identity dominated people's consciousness in a way barely conceivable now. ...I saw that the chief theme of the [Virginia Ratification Convention] was not the kind of America ratification would make but what effect ratification would have on Virginia."
So begins an indispensible study of a particular cultural and political setting in the early days of the United States, and how the formation of this nation was understood by one state -- Virginia. From the time that England's James I promised to honor Virginia's freedom and the English rights of its citizens through the Revolutionary War and the first decades of the United States, Virginians understood themselves to be an autonomous people who had signed on to the Constitution with the primacy of their state's uniqueness and identity intact. After finishing this book one can better appreciate why, threescore and ten years later, Robert E. Lee would turn down the highest command in the U.S. Army rather than turn his sword upon his home country, Virginia.
Gutzman provides an overview of Virginia's uniquely hierarchical culture -- chiefly descendants of the Caroline kings and their servants -- and introduces the key players who shaped Virginia's understanding of and response to the Ratification Convention: George Bland, Thomson Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Patrick Henry, among many others. Whether Federalist or Anti-Federalist, all parties worked to ensure Virginia's distinct identity within a non-binding contract of separate states.
Once the nationalist Federalists began to assert unstated powers, figures like the brilliant pamphleteer John Taylor of Caroline arose with prophetic vengeance, seeking to rally public and leadership sentiment back to first principles. Yet, the aristocratic culture to which Taylor and many prominent Virginians belonged unwittingly alienated many of the frontiersman who had pushed beyond the Blue Ridge escarpment, setting the stage for a future rupture in the Old Dominion.
Gutzman masterfully traces these developments and the external forces which by 1840 had undermined Virginia's primacy and example of local autonomy. Daresay most Americans have a limited or skewed understanding of the Revolution -- one that is increasingly monistic and nationalistic. Virginia's American Revolution underscores that, from the beginning, America consisted of disparate political cultures with very different visions of what the agency of Federal government meant. The Virginian vision has been obscured if not lost, and many serious social and economic ramifications of that outcome continue to manifest themselves today.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2009
~Virginia's American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840~ is a well written, erudite constitutional history of my beloved Commonwealth of Virginia from the time of the colonial-revolutionary days onward to the antebellum, post-Jacksonian years preceding the Civil War. Why Virginia? Virginia deserves attention because it was at the epicenter of the political and social life of the early United States. Prior to independence from Britain, Virginia was a country onto itself with land claims that stretched to the Pacific. After the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 to draft a new Constitution, Americans from neighboring states eyed the proceedings of the Virginia convention of 1788 watchfully as if looking in which direction to proceed with Virginia's prompting. As Patrick Henry proclaimed, "The example of Virginia is a mighty thing." The deference afforded to Virginia by her sister states in the early years of the American Republic is apparent by the number of presidents and statesman she bequeathed to the United States. Virginia's political sages included such luminaries as George Washington, Richard Bland, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Wilson Nicholas Cary and Littleton Waller Tazewell. Virginia defined her political culture with an insistence on localism and States' Rights.
Hence, author Kevin Gutzman offered a convincing and historically accurate challenge to the ascendant nationalist ideology that swept the West following Springtime Revolutions in 1848 and the American Civil War of 1861-65. Biased nationalist historiography seeks to reread events surrounding the American Revolution through the lens of nineteenth-century nationalist ideology--and the late American Civil War. As historian Clyde Wilson surmised of his work, Gutzman "calls attention to `the old reality of American political life that the state was the primary unit of political allegiance, the chief locus of political identity, and the level at which most significant political questions were decided to the early republic.'" The occasion for the writing of the book is insightful, as Gutzman approached his historical inquiry initially in search of John Calhoun's basis for interposition and nullification. Then his inquiry turned into a full-fledged probe of the broader American history of States' Rights. His mentor Peter Onuf pointed Gutzman in the direction of the Principles of 1798--which arose following the passage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Naturally, the Old Dominion took center stage.
Gutzman offers a fresh historiographical perspective, though not novel, as it was once ascendant in the early years of the American Republic. Having fought and won their independence from one of the mightiest empires on the earth, Virginians were not about to consign themselves once more to a remote centralized government. George Washington observed, "independent sovereignty is so ardently contended for... the local views of each State... will not yield to a more enlarged scale of politicks." This book is a break from the ideological fodder, which seeks to interpret American and Virginian history through the ideological lens of us hapless moderns. The task of the historian is to understand those who lived the past on their terms. In this regard, Gutzman's book is a welcomed break from his contemporaries who foist ideological agendas onto their historical interpretations.
Kevin Gutzman boasts some impressive credentials with a Juris Doctorate from the Univ. of Texas School of Law and a Ph.D. in History from the Univ. of Virginia.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2011
I, like many people, was abruptly woken up from my blissfully ignorant slumber to the political/economic turmoil our country has experienced these last few years. Finding myself insatiably hungry to learn about our history and the foundation this nation was built on I spend alota time studying the history of the American revolution and the early republic from an overall/federal level perspective. Being a citizen of Virginia (and being particularly fond of our flag) I began to wonder a bit more about her part in the Revolution during those times. Thanks to Tom Woods I discovered Kevin Gutzman's epic. Upon opening the first page you will find yourself immersed in the vibrant political scene in central Virginia -the epicenter of the newly forming republic- gaining a sense of the sentiments of the times, the political climate and culture- witnessing the great debates, political schisms and party feuds, all playing out before your eyes in incredible detail, satisfying the most erudite scholar while simultaneously entertaining the laymen historian with it's story-like read. Anyone interested in studying Virginia's (and thereby America's) history must not miss Kevin's incredible book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 15, 2011
This is truly an amazing work. One must consider Virginia's place within the 13 colonies and the importance that Virginia played during the ratification debates.
Dr. Gutzman introduces you to some key players in Virginia politics that played an important part in the formation of our country, but that are rarely discussed in detail in other works. People such as John Taylor of Caroline, George Mason and Patrick Henry.
Without a doubt, this is the best book that I have read on the early politics of our country and the leading role that Virginia continued to play through Madison's presidency and the Virginia
Resolutions of 1798. Written by James Madison in defiance of the Alien and Sedition Acts and followed by Madison's Report of 1800. Kevin Gutzman provides a detailed description of events during this time frame and presents it both accurately and thoroughly enjoyable writing style.
You owe it to yourself to read this book if you have any interest in the events of this time period and the first mention of interposition and nullification.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2009
This book is a thoroughly enjoyable read and an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history of the early American Republic here in Virginia.
For me it is easily 5 out of 5 stars. To my knowledge it is the only book to address this subject and in such great detail. As student at UVA of Peter Onuf I'd expected nothing less.
Check out the youtube links below for video reviews I did for the book as well.
Be sure to also read Who Killed the Constitution?: The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush
and The Politically Incorrect Guide(tm) to the Constitution (Politically Incorrect Guides).
Both are well worth the read and help to provide a comprehensive understanding of the subject.
Again, if you are interested in understanding Virginia Politics early in our history, the Ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the arguments made and by whom, how and why they are still important to understand today then look no further.
Be sure to keep your eyes out for the release of Kevin's book on James Madison. I'm sure it tell a the story of a Madison not many are familiar with.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2011
For readers interested in the subject of early U.S. history, there are already thousands of books in print which can shed at least some light on the topic. What is notable about this book is not how it is similar to those others, but how it is dissimilar. What is refreshingly different about "Virginia's American Revolution" (and what makes this book the indispensable guide that it is) is that instead of continuing the senselessly nationalistic tint that tends to grip other efforts in the field, Professor Gutzman examines the issues from the very same base of understanding from which the Founding Fathers considered them: the State level.
Through this much needed effort, the author makes it remarkably clear to the reader that our current singular American state was never intended to be created at all, and that the parties least interested in forming a new, unified "nation" were, in many cases, the same famous Virginia politicians and philosophers we now count as the American Founders. Instead of red-white-and-blue chest-pounding, Mr. Gutzman provides readers with a thorough account of the actual motivations and aspirations of Virginia's brightest minds (and richest landowners), how those intentions shaped the Union Constitution, and how the dreams of many of these men quickly began to evaporate as the unintended consequences of the new Federation began to settle in.
Anyone interested in America's Constitutional, colonial, or confederate history (or fed-up with our contemporary federal hydra) will find this book to be a tremendous read, especially for its complete rejection of the ridiculously inaccurate Union-as-State narrative, which has practically become the exclusive account of our country's founding. I would also recommend this book to any politically interested American who counts himself as the resident of a state -- which, excluding those unfortunate enough to live in Washington, D.C., is all of us.
4 stars instead of 5 only because it requires the reader to come in armed with at least some preexisting knowledge of the issues discussed. For an accessible primer on the topic, I'd suggest another of Mr. Gutzman's works, "The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution."
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2011
After reading Virginia's American Revolution, From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840 by Kevin Gutzman, I think I've answered one of the questions about the Constitution that was nagging me: Who are the parties that agreed to the Constitution? The Federal Government, the States, the American People? Taking them one at a time:
* The Federal Government was created by the Constitution. It didn't exist when the Constitution was written, debated or ratified, so it is not a party to the agreement. Rather, it is a creation of the Constitution.
* The preamble of the Constitution starts off with the words "We the People of the United States..". However, this is a bit of hyperbole. The Constitution was drafted not by The People but by a few dozen individuals who were sent to Philadelphia by their individual state governments. And, not all states even bothered to participate. Rhode Island sent no delegates. Furthermore, the Constitution was not ratified by the American People. It was ratified by the states in state-by-state conventions and went into effect when nine states ratified. Rhode Island held out for four years before ratifying.
* That leaves the states. And, indeed, one could argue that The People of each state ratified the Constitution via their individual state conventions. Some of my confusion comes from the changing interpretation of the phrase "the United States". Currently we would say, "the United States is ...". In 1787 people would have said "the United States are...". The change from the plural (indicating the several individual states) to the singular (indicating one country) clarified this issue to me. So, "We the People of the United States" in the Constitution's preamble really meant (in 1787) "We the People of the (individual) United States."
Dr. Gutzman presents a number of fascinating, but, I suspect, not widely known facts from Virginia's early history:
* Richard Bland's "An Inquiry into the Rights of the English Colonies" (1766) asserted that in 1607 King James I recognized the rights of the original Virginia colonists to legislate for themselves. Bland therefore concluded that Virginia was not bound by any law enacted by Parliament after 1607. Bland's ideas were adopted by Jefferson and became an important basis for the American Revolution.
* Virginia's first state constitution, May 1776, was the first written constitution in world history. It is a fascinating document. Written before the American Declaration of Independence, it declares and justifies Virginia's independence from Britain. Article 3 claims the right of revolution whenever the government failed to provide for: (1) "Protection and security of the people", (2) "The greatest degree of happiness and safety", and (3) "Security against the dangers of maladministration". Virginia claimed that a government must meet all three conditions as a prerequisite for creating a duty of loyalty and obedience by the governed. Article 5 placed term limits on all elective offices on the logic that "If rule by Parliament is not self rule, then neither is rule by career politicians."
* Participation in politics was limited to property owners. In addition to opposing taxation without representation, Virginia also opposed representation without taxation.
* Patrick Henry was the dominant figure in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1776 until he was elected governor. He was the original populist politician, cancelling taxes to curry favor, and votes, with hard pressed farmers whose crops had failed. When James Madison left the US Congress to take up a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, his initiatives were largely blocked by Henry. To clear his way, Madison supported Henry's election as governor (Virginia's governors were then elected by the vote of both house of the state legislature). Madison's motivation in organizing the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was at least in part to create a (federal/national) power base from which to oppose Henry. This may explain in part the meanderings of Madison's career from Federalist (~1787-89) to Republican/Anti-Federalist (1790s through the Jefferson Administration, 1801-9) to reborn Federalist (within the Republican Party) during his own administration (1809-1817).
* Between 1787 and 1840, Virginia declined from the largest, most populous, and richest state to a second tier state, at best. Part of that decline was due to the cession of Kentucky and Virginia's claims to territory north of the Ohio River. Part was due to the migration of large numbers of Virginians to the Old Southwest (Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) where land was both cheaper and more fertile.
* Even before the Civil War, western Virginia was straining its bonds to the eastern part of the state. The west was faster growing but underrepresented in the state government. In addition to unequal apportionment of seats in the legislature, Virginia's voter qualifications favored large freeholders at the expense of smaller householders, merchants, and mechanics who constituted a larger portion of the Western population. The west favored internal development projects such as roads and canals which the eastern-dominated government refused to fund. Slavery was a minor factor in the western economy but a significant one in the eastern.
Virginia's American Revolution was written for a reader with more than a cursory knowledge of early American history. The sentence structure is occasionally overly complicated. However, it is a short book, 200 pages including notes, and well worth the effort required to read it.