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In James Madison, the South, and the Trans-Appalachian West, 1783–1803, Jeffrey Allen Zemler situates the rapidly developing southern frontier amidst the national and sectional debates that occurred in the two decades following the American Revolution. Zemler argues that the trans-Appalachian West and one of the region’s strongest advocates, James Madison, lay at the epicenter of several of the most contentious political debates in the early American republic. From the postrevolutionary deliberations over early frontier settlement and land speculation to the heated presidential election of 1800, the political and economic issues related to the region helped shape sectional identities and influenced policymaking at the highest levels of government. Viewed largely through the historical lens of James Madison and the United States Congress, Zemler makes a strong case for the significance of the western frontier in the maturation of regional and national politics and America’s fledgling economy.
Zemler divides his study into eleven brief but densely packed chapters, each exploring a different political or economic concern associated with the trans-Appalachian West and the unfolding of each issue within a national political context. The author’s analysis touches on many of the central issues and debates related to the region, including the governance of western settlement and land speculation, Native American diplomacy and frontier defense, John Jay’s negotiations with Spanish diplomat Diego Gardoqui over access to the Mississippi River, western state-making in Kentucky and Tennessee, the location of the nation’s capital, slavery, and the ratification of the Constitution. Echoing recent historians’ efforts to demonstrate that [End Page 87] the trans-Appalachian West was not an isolated and inconsequential political backwater in the early American republic, Zemler skillfully reveals the centrality of the region and its political economy in the broader national debates and sectional political struggles of the period.
Zemler also contends that in an effort to forge a regional consciousness and establish the position of their region within the national government, southern leaders sought to cultivate political and economic connections with the trans-Appalachian West. As “western interests” and “southern interests” aligned, the South’s relationship with the trans-Appalachian West transitioned from economically motivated opportunism to a strong political alliance aimed at increasing the South’s political influence within the national government (p. 1). As southern political leaders attempted to wrestle control of the United States from northern dominance, they threw their support behind the region’s political positions, including the contentious Mississippi River issue, regional representation under the new Constitution, locating the nation’s capital on the Potomac River, and funding for frontier defenses. James Madison stands “at the center of this evolving southern and western relationship,” and Zemler adeptly traces the Virginian’s ever-shifting notions of the purpose, place, and policies of the trans-Appalachian West within the United States (p. 2).
There is much to be admired in Zemler’s study, especially his ability to tease out the often obfuscated appearance of western issues in broader congressional debates and James Madison’s constantly evolving views of the region and its role in the new nation. However, the study is not without its problems. Zemler did not consult many of the recent studies related to the trans-Appalachian West and fails to connect his ideas to the growing historiography of the region. The author also fails to portray the trans-Appalachian West as a complex and varied region inhabited by residents with disparate and divergent political and economic interests. Native American relations, economic growth, statehood attempts, and political interests were not identical in the Kentucky settlements, Cumberland, Franklin, or other western communities. In essence, there was no singular set of “western [End Page 88] interests” and, by portraying the region in such a monolithic fashion, the author creates a false impression of regional unity and political homogeneity. Despite this issue, Jeffrey Zemler’s James Madison, the South, and the Trans-Appalachian West, 1783–1803 is an excellent addition to the growing historiography of...