The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson's Virginia. By Jan Lewis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. xix, 290 pp. $24.95.
This book is one of interiors. Jan Lewis delves into the private lives and personal
values of the Virginia gentry from the time of the Revolution to about 1830. In
tracing the social and cultural transformation that occurred, Lewis withdraws the
reader from the great, cultivated fields and public arenas occupied by the planter
aristocracy in the eighteenth century into the parlor rooms and introspective diaries
of the genteel in the early nineteenth century. Lewis examines the written words
of a post-Revolutionary generation of Virginians for their thoughts and feelings; she
finds them turning inward and elevating the importance of emotions and family over
rationality and the individual. In the process, she discloses a trend common to the \
Western world -- from hierarchy, restraint, public responsibility, ambition to democracy,
sentimentality, privatism, resignation; from optimism to pessimism; from
objectivity to subjectivity; from the Enlightenment to the Victorian era.
Influenced by Peter L. Berger's sociological theory of knowledge, Lewis believes
that the conventions and constructs projected by people on their world tell much
about their expectations of life, if not the actuality. Using a small set of Virginians'
private letters and diaries, Lewis maps out the internal perceptions of their existence.
The book consists mainly of series of quotations strung together and drawn from
about seventy manuscript sources (ten or so printed; the rest located primarily in
six depositories). Although this may signify an impressive amount of research by
the author, her assertions about the changed attitudes of the Virginia gentry toward
religion, death, success, and love are based, then, on the comments of approximately
sixty people (some families or individuals are represented by more than one collection).
Is sixty a sufficient group from which to suggest that an entire society had
come to view this world as "a howling wilderness of woe" (p. 58), to which they
responded by retreating within doors to the consolations offered by familial love ,and
But a more serious problem is presented by Lewis's technique. The extracts from
correspondence appear in the text without date, often out of temporal sequence, and
out of context. Two examples reveal the kind of distortion that can result. Lewis
cites George Blow as an exemplar of de Tocqueville's individualism: someone who
has eschewed public life in favor of attending to his own business (pp. 157-58). The
Blow citations in the notes are dated 1821 and 1819. Two years after the later date,
in 1823, Blow ran for the House of Delegates but lost. Eliza Parke Custis is quoted
for her views on love. Her first marriage having failed, she meant to enter that state
again with one whom she knew could protect and make her happy (p. 196). What
Lewis does not inform the reader is that Custis divorced her husband, Thomas Law,
for faults as much her own as his and that, for whatever reasons, her plans to remarry
were never realized.
In both the instances of Blow and Custis, the quotations do reveal something about
their expectations. However, when cast against the backdrop of their own actions
and the historical setting, their psychological profiles throw a different shadow. The
economic decline in Virginia, the loss of leadership to a burgeoning democracy, the
elevation of the masses over their superiors, all must have contributed to the sense of a
world out of their control. But the disjunction between their perceptions and
behavior indicates that their own lives were out of their control as well. The people
portrayed in this book seem cut off from themselves. As Lewis claims, these Virginians
do appear to have drawn inward and to have foregone the public forum. They
focused on family life and affections to give them solace in a hostile world. But what
was the cause of their seeing the world as such an unhappy place? And why, in
spite of what they said, did they act in self-defeating and contradictory ways? John
Faulcon, who declared that " 'no one can possibly have a greater horror at the thought
of debt'" than himself, nevertheless became heavily obligated. When pressed to
retrench, he expressed moral revulsion at the thought of selling an old family servant --
and proceeded to trade him for $400 (pp. 139-40). Lewis, like her subjects, hints at
but does not confront the source of alienation from their society and from themselves:
slavery, the substructure of their way of life, was in decay, with no viable
economic base replacing it. "The pursuit of happiness" in Jefferson's Virginia proved
to be illusory indeed.
In describing the internal ruminations of a class in transition in the early nineteenth
century, Lewis has not only depicted the emergence of a middle-class culture
but also provoked, if not answered, the question of how Robert E. Lee and his fellow
Virginians ended up fighting on the losing side of a civil war.
Frederick C. Luebke, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Reviewed in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, v.93 no.1 (January 1985)