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Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia Hardcover – May 21, 2007

4.8 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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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From Booklist

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 Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (May 21, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465017436
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465017430
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.6 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,505,577 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
How does the leading state of the Revolution (the Mother of Presidents) become a sad backwater 50 years later? Though the author points to many factors, what it all comes down to is slavery. Dunn, in fact, does a wonderful job tying all the various threads together.

Some of those threads include a culture that celebrated soil and leisure (did you know the original motto of Virginia was "God bestowed upon us this leisure"?), contempt for education and the intellect (serving mainly to justify slavery as "consistent with the purest justice"), and an active disregard for improvements and capitalism (land and slaves was all you needed). What Dunn does is show how all of these supported slavery and the aristocratic planter class that slavery itself supported.

Some of this has already been treated elsewhere, but Dunn does a particularly good job making the explicit connections to the Old Dominion (where I grew up). She does this primarily by focusing on Madison and Jefferson and the role they played. Neither comes across very well, but the Sage of Monticello comes out particularly poorly - at his backward, stubborn, retrograde, and hypocritical worst.

I also liked the attention she paid the two state constitutional conventions (where these issues were actually discussed at length), how the original state constitution (which Jefferson and Madison helped craft) effectively gave the planters all the power, and how tariffs and abolition were used as red herrings to draw attention away from the issue of slavery. Jumping forward a 100 years, she also shows how things really hadn't changed that much in the 20th Century, with a particular emphasis on Virginia's embarrassing role in the Civil Rights movement.

Dunn's writing style is also excellent.
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Format: Hardcover
This analysis of Virginia History from 1800 to the Civil War and beyond is well researched, well-written, and fascinating. Dunn lets major figures such as Jefferson and Madison speak for themselves in chronicling the turning inward and clinging to slavery and class by a Virginia elite who oversaw a failure to adapt over a sixty year period. She does this without wasting words (it's a short book if you subtract the notes) and with a great deal of nuance and objectivity. There are historians with bigger names who write about wars and disasters- but Dunn does a brilliant job of telling this sad story of hard choices deferred and wasted. Good stuff!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This solid volume sets out to answer a question that has puzzled many of us who have lived in Virginia: what caused the Commonwealth to decline in influence from the commanding position it held during the colonial and early national periods? Susan Dunn offers a variety of explanations for this phenomenon as she focuses primarily upon the period prior to the Civil War. Among the most important factors, in her judgment, was the "cult of the soil" mentality--that is, the Virginia prior to the Civil War was the epitome of culture, gracious living, political independence, and harmony (even including relations with slaves). The Tidewater control of Virginia, which began in colonial days, and included both economic and political dimensions, was highly resistant to giving way to more modern influences, such as broader sufferage, development of manufacturing, and expanded public education.

Individual chapters are used to spell out in detail Dunn's arguments on topics such as the impact of slavery; resistance to developing top-quality public education; the failure to develop road, canal and railroad networks; a reluctance to venture too far away from an agriculturally-based economy; a fixation on states' rights ideology; limiting the sufferage to a fraction of the white male population; and reliance upon tariffs for economic protection. Running through the entire pre-Civil War period of course is the institution of slavery and the continuing dread that the northern-industrial-free labor federal government might well decide to terminate slavery once and for all. Hence, abolitionists become primary enemies, and fighting them drained off important resources that could have been utilized to modernize Virginia.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In Dominion of Memories, Susan Dunn analyzes the decline of Virginia between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Virginians were elected President in eight of the first nine presidential elections, 1788-1820. In the census of 1790, Virginia was the most populous state and controlled 19 of 105 seats in the US House of Representatives, 18% of the total, and 21 of 131 electoral votes, 16% of the total. From that high point, Virginia's influence in the federal government steadily decreased. Today the state controls 11 of 413 seats in the House, 2.5%, and 13 of 535 electoral votes, 2.4%. What happened?

Professor Dunn identifies several factors that contributed to this decline in Virginia's population and influence, including:

1. The dominance of agriculture in the economy
2. Slavery
3. Lack of liquid capital assets
4. Failure to develop manufacturing, commercial, and financial parts of the economy
5. Inadequate transportation infrastructure (roads and canals)
6. Inadequate educational opportunities
7. Disproportionate electoral control by the eastern plantation owners

Theses seven factors are highly interrelated, each tending to reinforce the others. Together, they caused a significant degree of economic, political, and social stagnation. That stagnation coupled with inexpensive land in the west resulted in a major outward migration of Virginians, which is also described in David Hackett Fischer's book, Bound Away.

Large scale plantation agriculture based on slavery appears to be the root of the other factors. Perhaps Jefferson's reverence for the Yeoman Farmer contributed to the dependence on agriculture, but I think that the real root lies deeper.
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