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Review of Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia by Susan Dunn


Did you know that of the five first presidents, four were Virginians, but, since then, there has only been one other Virginian elected president? I didn’t until I read Dominion of Memories by Susan Dunn.

Nor did I understand the reason for that until I read Dominion of Memories. Virginia was once the most important state in America. It was a colony that lent rhetoric and troops to the Revolutionary War, which was won at the Battle of Yorktown, a city in Virginia. It was the state whose thinkers wrote the most important documents of the American Revolution and early republic- the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And Virginia’s sons were some of the most influential thinkers behind both The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers.

In short, Virginia was once the most important state in America because her sons were the most important politicians and political philosophers in America. But, shortly after the creation of the American republic, that began to change; Virginia was quickly overshadowed by the Northern states, both in terms of wealth and influential politicians. Why did that happen? What was behind the decline of Virginia? Read Dominion of Memories and this review of it to find out!

Summary of Dominion of Memories by Susan Dunn

When Jefferson retired from public life, he returned home to Monticello and attempted to live out the pastoral, farm-centric life that he had written about the virtue of so many times in the past. Madison did the same when he left the presidency and retired to Montpelier.

But, both quickly found out that that life was unsustainable. The soil was depleted by the constant farming of tobacco. Cash crops, especially tobacco, were not fetching the prices they once were, so Virginia planters could not earn enough to sustain their lifestyles and were driven deep into debt. Land prices were plummeting as less-financially fortunate Virginians fled the Tidewater with its depleted soil and established new farms out west. The only asset rising in value was the value of slaves, but both Jefferson and Madison were deeply uncomfortable with the moral aspect of slavery.

Those are just some of the problems described in Dominion of Memories. Virginians, namely the largest landholders in it, experienced a host of problems shortly after the creation of the American republic, all of which led to the decline of the state.

In addition to the aforementioned problems, there were others- the spreading of abolitionist pamphlets panicked slaveholders and led to most intellectual thought in the state being devoted to defenses of slavery rather than new political thought. A refusal to pay taxes meant that there were too few schools in Virginia, which made the state relatively uneducated when compared with its northern peers. Similarly, because Virginians refused to pay taxes for internal improvements, the roads and bridges in Virginia were generally of too poor quality and too few in number to be much use.

Finally on the list of problems was slavery: that abhorrent institution not only was morally reprehensible, it also had devastating economic implications for Virginia. The most important implication of slavery expounded upon in Dominion of Memories was that slavery made Virginia a lazy, sloth-ridden state. Rich planters never worked and instead drank, gambled, and raced horses. Poor whites, not wanting to appear to be on a similar level to blacks, refused to work hard as they thought that only slaves should engage in difficult labor.

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And as a result, few factories or railroads were built- no one wanted to access credit and go through the labor necessary to establish one and, even if they did wish to do so, there were few workers willing to work in those factories or as laborers on the rail lines. No Virginian of that time was willing to work on building a railroad as later Americans did on the transcontinental. Because of slavery, Virginians would not work. Because of that, the state quickly fell behind the industrializing Northern states in terms of both wealth and importance.

According to Dunn in Dominion of Memories, between the creation of the republic and the beginning of the Civil War, Virginia experienced a profound decline as a state. Because of the host of issues mentioned above, it declined in importance both economically and politically. Its exports were a fraction of those of Massachusetts, a far smaller state, due to its refusal to industrialize and its politicians, focused on the preservation of slavery more than any other issue, were no longer as important on the national stage. Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Patrick Henry were replaced by forgotten representatives and senators that focused on preserving slavery rather than establishing liberty.

Additionally, because the tidewater elite refused to share power with the poorer but more numerous landholders in western Virginia, that region, the only growing region in Virginia, pursued ties with northern states rather than southern states and the rest of Virginia, which caused it to break away when war came in 1861.

Some men, however, attempted to fix the state’s problems and Dunn does a great service in writing about them in Dominion of Memories. Madison, Jefferson, and others went to great efforts to find suitable fertilizers that would revitalize the state’s soil and help its farmers get out of debt. Financiers attempted to establish banks in the state that would help finance new factories and railroads. Others worked to actually build those factories and railroads and modernize Virginia.

But, in the end, according to Dunn in Dominion of Memories, it was too little, too late. The fertilizers did not work as well as hoped. For the reasons described above, few whites were willing to build the railroads or work in the factories. Plantation owners fell deeper and deeper into debt while their countrymen up north grew wealthier and wealthier because of capitalism.

Virginia attempted to live out Jefferson’s ideal of the yeoman, independent farmer before the Civil War. But, for the reasons described in Dominion of Memories, that ideal was unworkable in real life because of industrialization. The Virginia cavaliers, because of their attachment to agriculture, were unable to triumph over the Yankee capitalists.

Analysis of Dominion of Memories by Susan Dunn

At times while reading it, I was entranced by Dunn’s Dominion of Memories. Her depiction of problems of their states and their causes, the nullification crisis in Virginia, or how Jefferson and Madison affected politics in the state far after their heyday was engrossing and incredibly interesting, especially because those topics are rarely brought up.

Similarly, I found Dunn’s depiction of Southern culture in Dominion of Memories was very interesting to contrast with Joseph J. Ellis’s After the Revolution and the depictions of American culture, mainly in the north, in it.

However, unlike with books like The Age of Federalism or Founding Brothers, I was not completely swept away by it, namely because of the emphasis Dunn places on the evils of slavery.

Yes, slavery is and was reprehensible and horrible. It was a moral stain. But sections on slavery in Dominion of Memories outnumber sections on any other topic. Was slavery really that much more important than the combined effects of soil depletion, laziness, a refusal to industrialize, an uneducated populace, and a state government that was overly tilted towards the interests of the tidewater elite? No, probably not. Dunn presents no evidence that justifies her emphasis on slavery.

So, I can’t be as overwhelmingly effusive about Dominion of Memories as I have been about other books that I have read recently. I think that while everything Dunn presents as evidence for Virginia’s decline in Dominion of Memories is certainly accurate, she gave some sections far too little emphasis and one section, slavery, far too much. I would much rather have heard more about the failures of Virginia’s political class on the national stage than read yet another chapter on the deleterious effects of slavery.

But still, on the whole, Dominion of Memories is an interesting read. Some sections of it- such as the one on how Virginians viewed slavery as morally superior to northern laissez-faire capitalism because of the social safety net it created- were incredibly interesting. I was also fascinated by the great efforts men like Madison and Jefferson made to develop fertilizers and farming processes that would allow their pastoral ideal to remain viable in a rapidly modernizing America. While they were unable to do so, their efforts were commendable and show their foresight and intelligence.


As you probably gathered from my analysis, I had conflicting feelings and thoughts about Dominion of Memories while reading it.

On one hand, much of it it deeply engrossing and quite interesting. Because I live in Virginia for school (and, despite the blue-leaning tilt of the state, love living in it), I found reading about the reasons for its decline quite interesting. And the connections Dunn makes between the writing and political thoughts of Jefferson and Madison and how those ideas played out in practice makes it an eye-opening book in some respects.

But, on the other hand, some of it is less than well done. Dunn should have attached more importance to some sections of it and less of a focus to others to accurately portray the scope of the problems facing Virginia in the early 19th century.

So, in conclusion, it might be a book you’d like to read if you’re interested in American history. I generally enjoyed reading it and learned a lot from it. But, if you are the type that gets annoyed by modern historians attaching far too much importance to slavery, then it might not be the book for you.

By: Gen Z Conservative