In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Virginians were casting longing backward glances. They “believed that they had already glimpsed—if not momentarily captured—the essence of the good life,” writes Williams College historian Susan Dunn. But, she goes on to ask, did nostalgia tempt the Old Dominion in particular, and the South, by extension, to mistake its plantation idyll for a more-or-less permanent stasis? Did the nearly religious embrace of the rural way of life, which was equated with manly independence, and a cultivated distaste for urban industrialism eternally mar relations between North and South? What was it that sank the fortunes of proud Virginians?
Dominion of Memories is a richly detailed investigation of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s home state in the half-century after the Revolution, as it struggled with slavery, weighed government’s role in public education, and speculated about the proper parameters of democracy more generally. Dunn, a smooth and persuasive writer, digests the best literature on Virginia and Virginians, highlighting the scholarship of the last 50 years as well as drawing on newspapers and correspondence of the early 19th century. In these pages, illustrious founders vie with lesser lights to chart the future, only half-realizing and half-accepting how shaky a foundation—how exhausted the soil—the future rests upon.