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Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause

Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase

Roger G. Kennedy

Publication Date - October 2004

ISBN: 9780195176070

376 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

Retail Price to Students: $24.95

How the growth of slave plantations doomed Jefferson's ideal of a republic of small farmers and wrought desolation upon Southern lands


Thomas Jefferson advocated a republic of small farmers--free and independent yeomen. And yet as president he presided over a massive expansion of the slaveholding plantation system, particularly with the Louisiana Purchase, squeezing the yeomanry to the fringes and to less desirable farmland. Now Roger G. Kennedy conducts an eye-opening examination of the gap between Jefferson's stated aspirations and what actually happened.

Kennedy reveals how the Louisiana Purchase had a major impact on land use and the growth of slavery. He examines the great financial interests (such as the powerful land companies that speculated in new territories and the British textile interests) that beat down slavery's many opponents in the South itself (Native Americans, African Americans, Appalachian farmers, and conscientious opponents of slavery). He describes how slaveholders' cash crops--first tobacco, then cotton--sickened the soil and how the planters moved from one desolated tract to the next. Soon the dominant culture of the entire region--from Maryland to Florida, from Carolina to Texas--was that of owners and slaves producing staple crops for international markets. The earth itself was impoverished, in many places beyond redemption.

None of this, Kennedy argues, was inevitable. He focuses on the character, ideas, and ambitions of Thomas Jefferson to show how he and other Southerners struggled with the moral dilemmas presented by the presence of Indian farmers on land they coveted, by the enslavement of their workforce, by the betrayal of their stated hopes, and by the manifest damage being done to the earth itself. Jefferson emerges as a tragic figure in a tragic period.

Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause was a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title for 2003.

About the Author(s)

Roger Kennedy is Director Emeritus of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, and a past Director of the National Park Service. He has had a long and distinguished career in public service during which he has served six presidents. His books include Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson and (as general editor and contributor) the twelve-volume Smithsonian Guide to Historic America.


"The book provides much food for argument....Kennedy is a talented story teller, and many will find this adventure in speculative history to be informative and fascinating."--Allan G. Bogue, University of Wisconsin, Madison

"Forces us to reconsider settled opinions."--Wall Street Journal

"Well-researched, well-written and provocative."--Santa Fe New Mexican

"A good look at the economics that drove the early years of the nation."--St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Fresh, endlessly fascinating, and altogether extraordinary....A sweeping, continent-wide reinterpretation of early US history from Kennedy, who replaces individualist heroes such as Daniel Boone with economic movements, transcontinental forces, and unintended consequences....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)

"An enjoyable and provocative work, taking a novel approach but backing it with good documentation."--Library Journal

"Mr. Kennedy's astringency forces us to reconsider settled opinions, always a good thing."--Wall Street Journal

"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

"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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