At the time of the nation’s founding, leading Virginians were generally regarded by non-Virginians as power-hungry and unduly proud. Their stranglehold on the presidency lasted from 1789 to 1825, interrupted only by the one-term New Englander John Adams. “The Virginia Dynasty” takes us back to a time when identification with one’s native state tended to be stronger than the commitment to national purposes. Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe are why Virginia’s stamp is so conspicuous in the national story. Virginia has given us more presidents than has any other state.
Cheney, a former second lady of the United States, is a careful student of history with a discerning eye. She holds a doctorate in British literature from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and has an appealing narrative voice. Her academic pedigree shows when she discusses Jefferson’s fascination with cadence, “which lilts along on iambic feet”; she invokes his little-known study of English prosody and “the importance of pauses to poetic language.” She writes of political passion dispassionately, with well-tempered anecdotes and salient facts.
Although the book opens with the pronouncement that the first four Virginian presidents “led in securing independence, creating the Constitution, and building the Republic,” the reader discovers that the author does not play favorites and never obscures the founders’ flaws. As Gen. Washington prepares for the British invasion of New York in 1776, his Virginia prejudices are summoned forth, and he says of profiteering New Englanders: “Such a dirty, mercenary spirit pervades the whole.” The national creation narrative is obliged to contend with a host of destabilizing forces.
Congressman Madison was principally responsible for the emergence of an organized critique of Washington’s administration, having seen between 1790 and 1792 an executive branch that failed to act as an impartial arbiter, ignoring citizens of modest means while coming down exclusively on the side of landed planters and wealthy speculators. Yet in a private meeting, he urged the president to serve a second term so as to build upon the “tone and firmness” he’d established across the government. Afterward, “the great little Madison” recorded that Washington demurred, protesting his “unfitness to judge of legal questions, and questions arising out of the Constitution.” Age had crept up on him, and he found newspaper attacks intolerable. Yet Washington, by staying silent, was unanimously returned to office.
The Jefferson of this book is the familiar visionary and conflict-avoidance specialist who consistently fails to retire to a life of ease. He leans most on Madison to write for the partisan press and take the heat off him. In her chapter devoted to intellectual freedom, Cheney writes that Madison’s “precise and practical way kept Jefferson tethered to earth.”
One might be surprised to discover that the most psychologically complex among the four Virginians is the least well-known: James Monroe. After Washington recalled him from a diplomatic mission to revolutionary France, Monroe felt impelled to produce a lengthy vindication of his performance. His mentor Jefferson told him that “it works irresistibly,” while a resentful Washington saw Monroe as a tool of the French, “cajoled — flattered — and made to believe strange things.”
There are good reasons to focus on the Virginia identity. From the Revolution forward, as Cheney outlines, its votaries promoted the intellectual depth and known virtues of those with recognizable surnames and long family legacies. Proximity to the new federal city of Washington after 1800 didn’t hurt, either. In the first national census, Virginia’s large free White population made it first among the 13 states. An additional 300,000, or nearly 40 percent of the total number of inhabitants, were enslaved people. The four presidents were not blind to the evils of slavery. Indeed, Cheney writes that Jefferson thought of it as “a sin against God.” But sinners sinned on, and the four caught relatively little flak for inaction. At least until 1820.
That year President Monroe, the last of this fitful dynasty, told his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, that he “apprehended no great danger” when Congress took up the burning issue of Missouri’s entrance into the Union. Should it be admitted short of a constitutional stipulation that no enslaved person could be imported into the state? Elaborating on this “apocalyptic confrontation of South and North,” Cheney observes that “Monroe, Madison, and Jefferson believed that splitting Republicans was the point of the Missouri question.” Sadly, a weakening of their party brand worried them more than the ownership of human property. The epilogue recalls an episode in which Madison, late in life, acknowledged the impracticality of a plan to which he nonetheless bequeathed a sizable amount of money: recolonizing emancipated enslaved people in Liberia.
Throughout the book, secondary players help enrich Cheney’s story. Virginia’s putative leader at the Constitutional Convention, Washington’s first attorney general and second secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, suffers a fall from grace he probably doesn’t deserve. Later, his second cousin, the sallow “master of sarcasm,” Rep. John Randolph of Roanoke, does his darnedest to replace Madison with the seemingly supple Monroe in the race to succeed President Jefferson in 1808. Cheney credibly demonstrates that the contrarian Congressman Randolph fed Monroe’s jealousy of the coequal relationship Madison enjoyed with Jefferson.
Monroe’s friend William Wirt, his future attorney general, had published a book in 1803 in which he wrote of Monroe: “Nature has given him a mind neither rapid nor rich,” along with “a judgment solid, strong, and clear.” Like most humans, Monroe recalled the insult sooner than the compliment. In 1808, as Wirt saw the writing on the wall and moved into the Madison camp, Monroe’s ego took another hit. But all’s well that ends well, and the Virginians reconciled once President Madison put Monroe in charge of both War and State departments, smoothing the way for dynastic succession.
“The Virginia Dynasty” is designed more to engage than to break new ground. The author elects not to tap treatments of the founding era by a rising generation of professional historians who give pronounced attention to political energies bubbling up from below. Still, the narrative offers informed, exacting characterizations of the uncertain political alliances, strained interactions and ideological growing pains that elites of the post-revolutionary decades put the country through. As a work of history, the book is a disciplined, agreeably constructed synthesis. As a human interest story it is no less agreeable.
The Virginia Dynasty
Four Presidents and the Creation of the American Nation
By Lynne Cheney
448 pp. $36