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Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase Hardcover – March 6, 2003

3.5 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (March 6, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195153472
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195153477
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 1.2 x 6.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,807,069 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Scott Snyder on February 25, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book had strong content and very weird organization.
On the plus side: Kennedy puts together a commanding set of facts to show that while Jefferson's words rang strong and true, the man himself was hamstrung by his allegiance to his class and could not affect any change regarding slavery in America.
One reviewer called Kennedy's work a Marxist critique of southern history. I would argue precisely the opposite. The "lost cause" of the title was the idea that yeoman farmers, tending their own farms for their own benefit would lead to a strong, engaged and committed citizenry. This was originally a Roman idea shared by men such as Adam Smith, James Oglethorpe, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. This practice was in place in the Northern colonies and later the Northwest Territory, and led to economic development and economic independence from Great Britain, industrialization, wealthy citizens and a diversified economy.
In the South, the plantation system meant large farms run by absentee landlords who exploited and ruined the soil, enslaved and robbed people of self-initiative (those people being the slaves), stifled diversification (all hail King Cotton), discouraged industrialization, and prolonged dependence and subservience to textile manufacturers in Liverpool and Manchester. Since the people actually working the land did not have a stake in it, or in the care of the tools they used, the factors of economic production - capital, land, tools and labor -all were "run into the ground.
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By A Customer on July 18, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I found this book fascinating on many counts.
First, the description of how the plantations east of the Allegheny Mountains were viewed as disposable by the men who ran them, since it was cheaper to buy new land on the frontier than properly maintain the land they currently possessed. Also, how these same men for various reasons and led by Jefferson resisted the industrialization that would diversified the economy of the south.
Second, how Jefferson and his allies catered to the land gluttony displayed by those early planters as new land was acquired for the United States. This was largely accomplished by dispossessing the people inconveniently already settling the land, and handing large swathes of land over to slave-holding planters emigrating from the lands they had exhausted.
Kennedy in fact dwells for much of the book on the territory of Florida (expanding beyond the current borders of that state across much of the South) possessed by Spain and settled prior to US acquisition by a mixture of Indians, whites and blacks who out of neccessity practiced sustainable agriculture on a small scale. I found the picture of Florida in that period to be one of the particularly interesting parts of the book. The relationship between the US and the people already settled on lands it wished to acquire (especially Indians), using Florida as a case study, was enlightening.
Kennedy provides some critical information for evaluating Jefferson's political leadership on the most compelling moral issue facing the young republic-the endurance and expansion of slavery within its boundaries. First, although the debate in Congress during his presidency over the expansion of slavery into new territories was very close, Jefferson refrained from using his influence to lead in this controversy.
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Format: Hardcover
Thomas Jefferson wrote eloquently against slavery and in favor of a nation of small farmers. He also ran a large plantation worked by several hundred slaves. Traditionally, Americans have emphasized the former, and found excuses for the latter. Kennedy does exactly the opposite. In fact, he argues that Jefferson was in a real sense responsible for preserving and extending slavery--and the system of large estates owned by "planters" that went with it.
During the Revolutionary War, a number of Virginians felt that slavery would eventually have to be ended. Jefferson did not support them, and slavery became more firmly established. In 1784, the government set up by the Articles of Confederation began to decide what to do with the new territories outside the 13 original states. A number of people felt that slavery should not be allowed there. Jefferson did not support them, and slavery was extended. In 1802, Jefferson, now president, bought the giant Louisiana Territory from France. A number of Americans felt that slavery should not be allowed there. Jefferson did not support them, and slavery was further extended.
Why would Jefferson do this, especially since slavery made impossible a country of small farmers? Kennedy has several answers. First, Jefferson wasn't really that fond of small farmers. He considered many of them to be uncivilized bumpkins. But he positively hated industrialization, and felt especially bad about free black "mechanics." He thought that the only proper way to treat freed slaves was the bring them back to Africa (or maybe Haiti). Until that would happen, it was "not yet" time for emancipation. Jefferson was a planter himself and felt that other planters were his peers.
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