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'Lost Cause' offers new insights, unwieldy prose about Jefferson

Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase, By Roger G. Kennedy, Oxford University, 350 pp., illustrated, paperback, $16.95

The life and career of Thomas Jefferson constitute one of the deepest paradoxes in American history: The man whose most famous -- and consequential -- words were ''All men are created equal," who wrote that family-size farms were the building blocks of a free society, himself owned 10,000 acres and more than 100 slaves. Furthermore, at the height of his career -- when he was essentially the most influential American of his day -- he stepped aside time and again, never objecting to plans, laws, and projects that led to what is now the core of the southern United States being carved into large, slave-worked plantations, ensuring the inevitability of the Civil War.

Nor was Jefferson oblivious to the consequences of the expansion of slavery. In 1820 he wrote, ''[I] regret I am to die in the belief, that the . . . sacrifice . . . of the generation of 1776, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons." He knew his country was on a self-destruct course.

The tantalizing subject virtually guarantees that most thoughtful readers of American history will reach for this paperback release of Roger Kennedy's ''Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause" with alacrity. But while those readers will certainly encounter fascinating characters and make astounding discoveries about antebellum America, they will have to wade through an awful lot of torturous writing and weak metaphors for their rewards.

One service Kennedy offers to readers is one that can't be rendered often enough -- he debunks the seemingly unkillable myth of the ancient plantation house inhabited by generations of the same family in a close, formative relationship with the land.

But the fortunes that built those porticoed houses were made in cash-crop farming -- first tobacco, and later cotton. Devoting land to a single crop repeatedly leaches it of nutrients, the very ones that the cash crop needs to grow. Kennedy notes that according to antebellum records the average planter family in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi moved twice a generation as a result of soil exhaustion.

An equally durable myth is the belief that the proliferation of columned mansions and slave-worked farms across what is now the southern United States was inevitable. Government policies could just as easily have supported small family farms as large plantations. Kennedy also points out that a few of the Founding Fathers voiced support for the creation of a Native American state in the South.

But none of these possibilities -- a Midwestern course for the South, a Native American state, or a mixed-race republic -- was to be. Despite the antislavery rhetoric of Jefferson's youth, he used his influence as America's senior statesman to advance the interests of slave owners. In 1805, he signed the legislation making Louisiana a slave-holding territory. From 1818 to 1820, when Congress debated measures to limit slavery, Jefferson expressed his opposition to such measures to the president, his former protégé, James Monroe. Jefferson's influence also helped defeat the Taylor Amendment, which would have freed all black children born in Arkansas after 1819. And Jefferson never freed his own slaves (which Washington did, albeit posthumously).

But as Kennedy concedes, examining Jefferson's role in the expansion of slavery is an exercise in speculation. Even Southerners were ambivalent about slavery during the early decades of the Republic. Perhaps Jefferson's influence could have turned the South on a different course. But perhaps not: The economies of roughly half the states were based on slavery, and the political and financial elites of those states soon heard the call of the new international cotton market.

''Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause" is a compelling account of the interplay of economics, politics, and race during the founding years of the nation and explores areas usually ignored in histories of the period. Kennedy briefly discusses Spanish-administered Louisiana, which was far more hospitable to free blacks and small farms than was the American regime that followed. He also examines the role of the Firm -- a shadowy network of Scottish and Irish merchants who operated from the Carolinas to the Caribbean to the Mississippi -- in pulling the southern frontier into the international slave economy.

But learning all this comes at a price: Kennedy's prose is often unwieldy. In one particularly egregious example, discussing the demand for cotton fabric in antebellum America, he writes: ''[Southern ladies] wore neoclassical cotton frocks, scandalous from the point of view of Abigail Adams in their neoclassical susceptibility to the caress of every breeze and their Hellenistic revelations of the contours beneath and the withdrawal of their bodice-lines to the very frontier of decent coverage." Kennedy also devotes a good bit of writing to unnecessary analogies and weak metaphors. He simply doesn't need to discuss phagocytosis (consumption by an overwhelming organism) or epiboly (dominance of one species) as a prelude to analyzing the spread of slavery. And it's bad enough that Kennedy calls Jefferson the Hamlet of this period of Southern history, but when he declares Andrew Jackson (''prince of Middle Tennessee"!) Fortinbras, I seriously wonder whether he's actually read the play.

I learned much from reading ''Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause" that I don't know I would have learned anywhere else. I applaud Kennedy's exhaustive research; I just wish his editors had worked as hard at curbing his verbal excesses.

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