I treasure books that help me look at familiar things in a new way, and have just finished two that do that: Ned Sublette’s The World the Made New Orleans, and Roger Kennedy’s Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause. Though neither book is quite new, they were new to me.
Sublette is one of those appalling people with way too much talent in far too many areas. As a musician, his achievements include a wild merengue version of Ghost Riders in the Sky, the cowboy classic, and bunches of other recordings. But he’s also a very fine writer who’s curious about history. What better topic than New Orleans for a musician who is curious about history?
Sublette starts from The Beginning, exploring the French political and social forces that led to the founding of New Orleans, which was something of a penal colony and a dread destination in its early days. His take on the Spanish era of control (1763 to 1803) is fascinating. Though the Spaniards did little to change the dominant French culture, he credits them with implementing a relaxed form of slavery (if that’s a term that can be used) which allowed the a vibrant community of free blacks and mestizos to develop.
As a musician, Sublette is also particularly sensitive to the musical traditions that grew from the colony’s earliest days, tracing them back to hymn-singing Ursuline sisters and waves of African slaves. If you love New Orleans — and I think that’s everyone I’ve ever met — this book will make you think about it in many different ways.
Roger Kennedy is another man with so many talents that he makes the rest of us feel bad. He was chairman of a bank in Minneapolis, head of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, and director of the National Park Service. Oh, and he has written a number of fascinating books about architecture and history. Fourteen of them, by my count.
His book on Jefferson is a sprawling, iconoclastic rampage through some of our hoariest myths about the third president. His immediate target is the Jeffersonian ideal of a nation filled with yeoman farmers. That’s what Jefferson was all about, right? Isn’t that why he fought the duel with Hamilton? (Wait, that was Aaron Burr who fought Hamilton, and I’m writing a book about that. I digress.)
Kennedy peels away Jefferson’s always-charming rhetoric to the beating heart of what the man actually did as a public official for thirty years. He concludes — and demonstrates to my satisfaction — that Jefferson had no interest whatever in assisting the growth of small farms whose yeoman proprietors would be the backbone of our democracy. No, sirree, Kennedy’s Tom Jefferson was a gentleman planter and slave master, and his policies were all designed to help other gentlemen planters and slave masters spread their unique contagion — large plantations raising cash crops that ruined the soil — across the Western Hemisphere.
Kennedy is not interested only in trashing Jefferson’s historical standing, though that is certainly part of his mission. He also writes as an ecologist, dismayed at the wasting agricultural practices that Jefferson helped spread through the South. Because cotton and tobacco cultivation ruined the soil of Virginia and the Carolinas, and then Tennessee and Georgia and Alabama, the plantation owners and their slaves had to move every generation to new lands. And that meant that the corrosive issue of slavery was renewed over and over and over again, until Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party finally said, “no more.”
Though Kennedy’s narrative can be circuitous — almost everything interests him, and he turns up some odd and intriguing factoids — the thesis is persuasive. The Civil War was brought on by the constant need to expand slave lands; that need grew from the ruined soils that plantation agriculture produced every generation; and plantation agriculture was supported by government land policies (principally, stealing land from Indians) that profoundly favored plantation owners; and Jefferson started it all.
Check them both out.