November 06, 2009



At first I was kind of dreading the amount of overlap we would get between all the different biographies. Especially in the early years of the presidency, when the American political scene was still very small, most of the presidents were not only contemporaries but lifelong friends. So we're reading about alot of the same stuff over and over again. A letter that Adams wrote to Jefferson is quoted in the biographies of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, and I wouldn't be surprised if it showed up in Madison and Monroe as well.

But the nice thing about it is how well I'm getting to know colonial/revolutionary America. I'm currently in the early years of the Madison biography, and when Ralph Ketcham lists off some of his more prominent classmates at Princeton, I already knew who a lot of them were. When he mentioned that Philip Freneau authored many satirical pamphlets at Princeton I was like, "Of course he did! Blast that Freneau! Always making trouble."**

I also know my way around American in the 1770s. Philadelphia was the center of progress (thanks in no small part to Benjamin Franklin). It was the largest city in America, and the first one to have sidewalks, streetlamps, and organized political dissension. People used to meet at the London Coffee House (ha) to complain about England.

Boston was a town of well-educated Puritans and Rebels. There wasn't a lot of old money in Boston in those days, mostly lawyers and merchants and clergy. John Adams was a true Boston man - self-made, thrifty, devoutly religious, and vehemently revolutionary.

New York started making a play for majorness slightly later. It had good shipping, and once the Revolutionary War was in full swing the British targeted it much more than Philadelphia. Although it was on its way up, in general it was a poor man's Philadelphia. George Washington was inaugurated there but the federal government moved to Philadlephia only a few months later.

Philadelphia was dead set on being the permanent capital of the federal government. It had hosted all the Continental Congress sessions, after all, it was the biggest, the most sophisticated, and the president already lived there.

But they decided to build a brand new capital, and they decided it should be on the Potomac. Why? Well, mainly because George Washington got to pick where it was, and Thomas Jefferson was his secretary of state, and they were all about Virginia.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all hailed from Virginia planter class (although Washington kind of married into it), and they literally will not shut up about it. Getting any of them, especially the first two, to leave Virginia was like kicking Adam and Eve out of the garden. Presidencies, ambassadorships, gigs writing the Consitution - all of these were moaned about as not being as awesome as staying in Virginia. Virginia was the most important place in America for the latter half of the 18th century, and possibly longer.

Americans were still comfortable with landed gentry, even if they weren't crazy about monarchy, and the Virgininan planters came close to being the barons and earls of America. They had huge, sprawling estates, hundreds of slaves, lots of debt, and oodles of class. It's an easy place to farm, and a big productive farm was possibly the manliest thing you could possess. The children of these estates (among them those 4 early presidents) had very little to do with their youth other than learn Latin, Greek, rhetoric, oratory, and theology. They grew up to be brilliant, stately, very accustomed to luxury, and very attached to their land. Virginia produced luminaries of the Revolution at a much higher rate than any other state, and was constantly being deferred to. When three men were needed to be envoys to Britain, Congress wanted to send a Northerner, a Southerner, and a Virginian. Men from Virginia were loyal to each other (most of them were related anyway), so any time a position came open, being from Virginia was always hugely in someone's favor, because of all the clouty friends they would carry with them. If the Virginians banded together in any debate, they would win it.

It was the old boys club within the original old boys club. Even at the time it had its skeptics. Adams - who was a fan of living within his means and not a fan of owning other people - thought Virginia was kind of ridiculous.

It's been a funny thing to get used to, because Philadelphia, New York, and Boston are all still major cities, but Virginia doesn't have a trace of the cache it used to. When I think of Virginia I think swing state and ham, but when I read the biographies it's just the ultimate. Jefferson thought it would be the model for the rest of America. Washington thought it would be the gateway to the west, the eternal epicentre of America, which is why he built the federal city a stone's throw from his house.

I don't know what happend to Virginia, or when it lost its status, but when I read about Virginia in the old days, I kind of wish I could go there. As long as I was a rich white man.

**Freneau was a poet and friend of Jefferson and Madison. Years later, when they were unhappy with the way America was going but didn't want to embroil themselves in a public scandal, they gave Freneau the money to start a newspaper had him write articles about how great they were. He was (maybe) the bane of Adams' presidency.


  1. Coming to this late, via your piece in the Millions. I love this project, and I love your writing and insights into not just this history, but the very concepts of how to grapple with history. Love this entry in particular. Well done.

  2. Secession spelled the end for Virginia as epicenter of American life. They picked the wrong side. After the Civil War, they had to deal with the specter of being thought of as traitors. Grant said it best when he stated, and I'll paraphrase, that Virginia was worse than South Carolina because generations of South Carolina had learned to hate the federal government due to the nullification crisis under Andrew Jackson. But Virginians had held the highest seats of power and were heroes of the nation, which made their treachery far worse.

    Virginia's planter class was also at least temporarily destroyed by the war itself due to the destruction of the land and farms by battle and foraging of troops. The eastern front was fought mostly in Virginia.