WHEN asked to provide commentary concerning desirable additions to what Brent Tarter has termed the "new Virginia bookshelf," I made several decisions that have shaped (for better or worse) the essay that follows. First, I opted against attempting to emulate Tarter's historiographical tour de force of surveying the broad sweep of the commonwealth's past--from Powhatan to the present. Instead, I have focused on the period extending from 1820, a date often cited as the onset of the antebellum era, to 1902, when a new state constitution signaled the end of Virginia's experiment with Reconstruction-style political democracy. The era thus delimited, covering most of the tumultuous nineteenth century, is the phase of the Old Dominion's historical experience with which I am most familiar and about which, consequently, I feel the greatest confidence in expressing opinions and preferences. Second, I have not endeavored to provide anything approximating a comprehensive list of worthwhile research topics that remain to be explored within this eighty-two-year span. The number of potential subjects is too large, the available space too limited. By contrast, what I have done is at once more circumscribed and more idiosyncratic: I have attempted to delineate the broad outlines of a series of economic and political questions regarding Virginia from 1820 to 1902 that have, for one reason or another, piqued my curiosity. Finally, in the course of my comments I have tried to suggest interpretive approaches to these issues that are intended to complement (rather than duplicate) the observations contained in Brent Tarter's more detailed and systematic overview. I hope that the results will be helpful to those who struggle to understand and interpret this complex, challenging era.
Looking first at the antebellum economy, I must confess that I have long been mystified by the effect of the out-migration (voluntary or coerced) of immense numbers of white and black Virginians to other states during the first half of the nineteenth century. The heavily populated, more intensely farmed Tidewater, Piedmont, and Southside counties undoubtedly experienced the highest levels of emigration, but I suspect that few (if any) of the commonwealth's regions were unaffected by the lure of cheap land and new opportunities in the Deep South and the West. Contemporary observers denounced this trend as detrimental to Virginia's financial well-being, a judgment that has been echoed by generations of historians as well.(1) I would like to know a great deal more, however, about those who emigrated and, more important, about those who stayed behind. How did this prolonged demographic hemorrhage alter the age structure, gender ratio, and income (or wealth) distribution of the state's residual population? I also wonder if the consequences of out-migration were actually so negative as has customarily been assumed. Assessed in purely economic terms, for example, did Virginia profit from its role as a major supplier for the interstate slave trade? Admittedly, the commonwealth's labor force was diminished by the export of a substantial share of its human capital, but what use was made of proceeds from the sales? Was the money employed merely to keep creditors from the doors of decaying mansions, or was it funneled into agricultural reforms, transportation improvements, and industrial growth? Did large-scale slave sales lead to labor shortages and to increased demand and higher wages for immigrant workers in such cities as Richmond, which attracted thousands of foreign-born residents during the period? On a related note, did anyone benefit from the declining prices of farmland that accompanied the out-migrations of the 1820s and 1830s? Were yeoman farmers able to expand their acreages? Were previously landless tenants and rural day laborers able to move onto the lower rungs of the property-owning class?
These queries are indicative of an even broader gap in our knowledge about economic life in the decades before the Civil War. I am aware of no published, book-length study that systematically analyzes the rural class structure of antebellum Virginia--from the Ohio to the Chesapeake. Consequently, although articles detailing agricultural trends in particular counties or subregions have found their way into print, much about the rural scene remains obscure or, at best, conjectural.(2) Were long-established planter families able to maintain their preeminence east of the Blue Ridge, despite (or, more likely, because of) slave sales? Did the landowning middle class--however defined in statistical terms-expand or diminish in numbers and economic importance between 1820 and 1860? What do we know about pre-Civil War tenancy arrangements or the compensation levels of agricultural day laborers? What effect did the availability (or scarcity) of slaves for hire exert on farm wages in different areas of the commonwealth? Did a significant poor white underclass exist, and, if so, what role did it play in the rural economic order? Did subsistence farming--supplemented by community-based exchanges of goods and services--predominate in large areas, or did cash-crop, market-oriented agriculture hold sway throughout the state? Clearly, a fledgling Frank L. Owsley or E. P. Thompson would discover fertile fields (no pun intended) for research in the census returns, personal property reports, land books, court records, and local newspapers of the antebellum Virginia countryside.
Uncertain about the structure or dynamics of class relations, I am also more than a bit perplexed about another aspect of the prewar economy: the extent to which developments in the state mirrored broader patterns in the national business cycle. Presumably, Virginians could not avoid being caught up in the financial panics of 1819, 1837, and 1857 and in the respective periods of hard times that followed. As Ronald L. Heinemann's account of the Great Depression of our own century suggests, however, the commonwealth has not always moved in commercial lockstep with the country at large, and the possibility exists that the same was true in previous eras as well.(3) Precisely when (and how) did the various antebellum economic crises manifest themselves in Virginia? What sectors of production and which geographical regions were most affected? During which years did the respective panics have their greatest effects? When (and how) did recovery begin? With reference to this last issue, I am particularly intrigued by the prolonged upsurge in the Old Dominion's agricultural and industrial fortunes that apparently began at some point in the mid-1840s and continued until the late 1850s. Why, after decades of what has generally been characterized as economic stagnation, did this boom occur? Railroad building (much of it state financed) obviously played a role, as did the activities of ambitious entrepreneurs in Virginia's cities.(4) Nevertheless, much remains to be learned about this period when rising slave prices, land values, and manufacturing output seemed to herald the advent of a new day in the Old Dominion.
And then the war came. No one doubts that the epic struggle from 1861 to 1865 exerted a massive effect (both immediate and long-term) on the commonwealth's economy, but much about the character and dimensions of that effect remains frustratingly vague. For example, did the loss of the trans-Allegheny region to breakaway West Virginia necessarily mean that access to the resources and markets of that area would be lost or diminished as well--even after the guns fell silent at Appomattox? Did Virginia-based businessmen encounter judicial, legislative, or popular antagonism when they attempted to reestablish commercial ties with the pro-Union mountaineers? I also wonder about the economic consequences of another, more wrenching feature of the war: the demise of perhaps as many as 50,000 of the Old Dominion's men in Confederate service. Did all levels of the white social structure contribute proportionally to this death toll, or was the conflict largely a "poor man's fight"--thereby facilitating the survival of plantation owners, industrialists, and other elite groups? The presence in Richmond of thousands of Confederate bureaucrats gives rise to a related question. Escaping the risks of combat, were these department chiefs, revenue officials, armaments designers, clerks, and other behind-the-lines personnel subsequently able to apply their well-honed technocratic and management skills to profit-making, peacetime endeavors? Did the war thus inadvertently pave the way for an expanded and strengthened entrepreneurial class in Gilded Age Virginia?
The casualties exacted by military campaigns undoubtedly shaped the commonwealth's future (albeit in ways that are, as yet, imperfectly understood). Meanwhile, the physical destruction wrought by the contesting armies also left a problematical legacy. Some areas of the state were devastated; others--more remote or more fortunate--were largely spared. This almost capricious set of circumstances suggests a line of inquiry that may, in my opinion, prove worthwhile: What relationship (if any) can be ascertained between the extent of wartime property damage inflicted on a particular locale and the speed with which that locale achieved economic recovery during the postwar era? Investigation of this issue may produce surprising results. The Shenandoah Valley suffered a great deal of hard fighting (and more than its share of pillaging and burning) between 1862 and 1864. Nevertheless, impressionistic evidence suggests that Virginia's much-abused bread basket regained its commercial vitality more quickly than interior reaches of the Southside that had witnessed comparatively little combat.(5) On a similar note, why did Richmond--badly ravaged by fire during the Confederate evacuation--soon reestablish its position as a trade and manufacturing center, while nearby Petersburg stagnated in the aftermath of its prolonged and agonizing siege? In turn, how did the experience of Richmond or Petersburg compare with that of Norfolk, which had fallen almost effortlessly into Federal hands early in 1862? Research on such complex and (at times) paradoxical developments should tell us a great deal not only about the war but also about the mercantile, agricultural, and industrial dynamics of the peace that followed.
The most dramatic change that accompanied the Confederate collapse was, of course, the eradication of chattel slavery. Examining the subsequent shift to free labor, recent studies have celebrated the resourcefulness and initiative of Virginia's newly liberated blacks--as displayed in land purchases, entrepreneurial ventures, and trade-union activism.(6) By contrast, most contemporary white observers found little to praise (and much to lament) in what they characterized as the "demoralization" of a previously reliable and productive work force. These diverse perceptions are not surprising, but they do suggest the need for analysis of an underlying issue: How efficient was the state's post-Civil War labor system relative to its antebellum predecessor? Despite the low wages many earned as sharecroppers or unskilled factory hands, emancipated blacks undoubtedly received a much larger share of the proceeds from their toil than had been the case with slaves. How did this basic change, coupled with prevailing credit and currency shortages, affect the process of capital formation and the pace of economic recovery in the decades after Appomattox? Indeed, how long did it take for the goods-and-services output of postbellum Virginia's entire population--black and white--to exceed pre-1861 levels ? Was this seemingly modest goal accomplished by 1870? By 1875? By the 1880s (as may have been the norm elsewhere in the former Confederacy)? I am aware of no study, published or unpublished, that addresses these questions in a systematic way.
Whether the commonwealth's economic revival was accomplished in five years or in twenty-five, it seems apparent that outside (especially northern) investments, organizational talents, and technological know-how played an important, perhaps crucial, role. This trend manifested itself most dramatically during the 1870s and 1880s, when many of Virginia's financially troubled railroads were absorbed into the Chesapeake and Ohio, the Norfolk & Western, and other externally controlled syndicates. Northern men and northern money also contributed significantly to such diverse developments as the opening of coalfields in the state's southwestern mountains, the creation of vast shipyards at Newport News, the sudden emergence of the "Miracle City" of Roanoke, the phenomenal growth of the menhaden and oyster fisheries, the building of Richmond's innovative electric streetcar system, and the promotion of tourism enterprises ranging from Shenandoah Valley caverns to seacoast resort hotels. I would like to know more about the origins, timing, and significance of these ventures. Why, despite the commonwealth's controversial experiment with public debt repudiation from 1877 to 1892, was Virginia perceived as an attractive locus for investment? Did the nationwide financial panics of 1873 and 1893 stem this influx of capital and, if so, for how long? Perhaps most important, did northern-backed business initiatives stimulate local commerce and encourage sustained growth, or did they merely serve to convert the Old Dominion into a dependent, readily exploited "colony" of Wall Street?
Virginia's role as a magnet for outside investment during the last decades of the nineteenth century points to another potentially intriguing topic for research. To what extent did the commonwealth's postwar economic experience diverge from that of the rest of the erstwhile Confederacy? Recent studies of the Deep South during this era emphasize an array of negative events and circumstances: the persistence of one-crop agriculture; repressive landlord-tenant relations; clashes between planters and industrialists vying for control of low-wage black labor; legislative battles to determine whether merchants or landowners would enjoy superior legal claim to the produce of debt-ridden sharecroppers; and the ruthless curtailment of traditional common property access to pasturage, fish, and wild game by the poor of both races.(7) By contrast, such issues rarely surface in analyses of Gilded Age Virginia.(8) Perhaps this absence is because the Old Dominion's more diversified economic order was becoming less "southern" with each passing year. Alternatively, it is also possible that conditions and conflicts similar to those in the cotton states did exist in the commonwealth but have, as yet, been neglected by historians. How much do we really know about Virginia's laws, judicial rulings, and customary usages with reference to hunting and fishing, landowner prerogatives and tenant rights, livestock grazing and fenced (or unfenced) boundaries, homestead exemptions and debt foreclosures, mercantile interest rates and crop liens? Did the Old Dominion align itself with the reactionary Dixie heartland on such matters, or did the state follow a moderate or even liberal course--one more appropriate to its location at the sectionally ambiguous "edge of the South"?(9)
As I have attempted to demonstrate, Virginia's nineteenth-century economy is a promising field for research. Brent Tarter reaches a similar conclusion about the era's political history and, supporting this stance, provides extensive lists of leaders, parties,. and governmental institutions that have eluded the gaze of scholars. Although recognizing the existence of an array of such neglected or semi-neglected topics, I would nonetheless like to suggest a different approach. As I see it, we know a considerable amount--either from old or recent studies--about certain key periods and issues: the antebellum debates about slavery, internal improvements, and tax-supported primary education; the east-west power struggle that culminated in the constitutional conventions of 1829-30 and 1850-51; the secession crisis of 1861 and the subsequent loss of the Unionist trans-Allegheny counties; the post-Civil War advent of black suffrage and the accompanying rise of the Republican party; the Machiavellian stratagems that short-circuited Radical Reconstruction in 1868-69; the short-lived Conservative regime that followed; the bitter struggle over the state debt that overshadowed the 1870s and 1880s; and the so-called reform impulse that led to the disfranchisement of many of the commonwealth's black and poor white citizens in 1902. What we do not know is how these discrete episodes and complex phenomena can be explained within a coherent interpretive framework. In other words, is it possible to view the Old Dominion's political experience--from the decline of the national-level Virginia Dynasty to the dawn of Progressivism--as a unified (albeit fast evolving) whole, as some sort of ongoing process, bound together by overarching metaphors, concepts, or themes? Having devoted a substantial part of my career to the notion of antebellum-postbellum continuities in southern life, I would prefer to believe that this query can and will be answered in the affirmative. Whether or not this ultimately proves to be the case, I want to suggest several avenues for research that might lead to a broader, more comprehensive vision of Virginia politics during the nineteenth century.
Analysis of campaign rhetoric as displayed in speeches, platforms, editorials, and broadsides may strike many modern-day scholars as a stale and unimaginative exercise. When applied to the broad time period suggested above, however, such an approach could conceivably lead to provocative findings. For example, I think that it would be interesting to explore the extent to which participants on all sides of the state's successive electoral struggles from 1820 to 1902 attempted to portray themselves as defenders of the ideological heritage of the American Revolution. For Virginians, this legacy of old-fashioned republicanism--hallowed by the words and deeds of Washington and Jefferson, Henry and Mason, Madison and Marshall--carried enormous significance.
strongly suspect that the outcome of campaign after campaign hinged (at least in some measure) on the ability of one party or another to present its candidates more convincingly as the legitimate heirs and interpreters of the Spirit of 1776. Is this perception accurate? Did the commonwealth's Jacksonians and Whigs, secessionists and Unionists, Radicals and Conservatives, Readjusters and Funders, Democrats and Republicans, disfranchisers and anti-disfranchisers, compete in this fashion, and, if so, did this mode of electioneering tend to favor the advocates of change or of the status quo?
Nineteenth-century Virginians may have been sincerely devoted to the heroes and ideals of the past, but they broke with tradition in at least one critical area. Between 1829 and 1869, they demolished the institutional bulwarks of the system of elite control and mass deference that had nurtured the commonwealth's revolutionary-era "Great Generation." Universal manhood suffrage, popularly elected state and local officials, the secret ballot, and an array of other reforms punctuated the antebellum and Reconstruction years and signaled the advent of a more egalitarian order that prevailed--on paper, at least--until the triumph of the "progressive" counterrevolution in 1902.
Unanswered questions (and potential research topics) abound with reference to this prolonged democratic experiment. How did party structures, nominating procedures, and campaign tactics evolve during the nineteenth century? What role did conventions, parades, mass meetings, barbecues, and rallies play in the political culture of Virginia's successive party systems? What influence did the editors of major newspapers exercise, and did that influence wax or wane through the years? Did the enfranchisement of property less whites in the 1850s and of blacks in the 1860s evoke similar reactions from conservative spokesmen? What patterns are discernible in election-day turnouts across the century? Were voter participation levels higher among the wealthy or the poor, city dwellers or rural folk, Tidewater residents or southwestern mountaineers? How were campaigns financed? When did the spoils system emerge, thus facilitating the rise of a class of professional politicians? Can the roots of the Old Dominion's Gilded Age courthouse cliques and boss-dominated patronage machines be traced to the antebellum era?
These queries suggest a more fundamental issue. How did the aforementioned egalitarian reforms alter the time-honored pathway to power that Charles S. Sydnor celebrated in his classic study of the commonwealth's eighteenth-century elite?(10) By the 1850s (or even the 1830s), did membership in the old-line plantation gentry no longer constitute an essential first step for the ambitious? Indeed, had bourgeois-minded urban areas already begun to serve as training grounds for aspirants to legislative, judicial, and executive office? According to C. Vann Woodward, post-Reconstruction Virginia witnessed the "city man's rule of a countryman's state."(11) If this assessment is, in fact, valid, how and when had the familiar, rural-oriented pathway been transformed into a metropolitan thoroughfare? On a related note, I believe that the Radical Underwood Constitution's ill-starred effort to create a township system of local government also merits a closer look. Patterned after the prevailing order in New York state, this complex, multilevel hierarchy of elected officials was eradicated by cost-conscious Conservatives in 1875.(12) How well had the townships functioned during their brief existence? What were the consequences of reversion to a more conventional, less democratic administrative structure in the counties?
Whether Virginia's nineteenth-century leaders were scions of the old elite or self-made men, country squires or urbanites, they nonetheless responded favorably to most of the modernizing currents of the times--particularly with reference to economic growth and state services. During the antebellum era, the heyday of publicly financed internal improvements, the commonwealth poured tens of millions of dollars into railroads, canals, turnpikes, and banks. Reflecting another widespread contemporary impulse, lawmakers expanded the humanitarian and educational roles of the Old Dominion's government as well. Between 1820 and 1860, a university in Charlottesville, a military academy in Lexington, a medical college in Richmond, a mental hospital in Staunton, and a school for the handicapped (also in Staunton) were added to a list of tax-supported state institutions that had previously included little more than the Jeffersonian penitentiary in Richmond and an antiquated mental hospital in Williamsburg.
After the Civil War, when laissez-faire economic notions exercised growing sway, Virginia's leadership once again moved with the tide. The impoverished, debt-ridden commonwealth sold almost all of its stock in transportation companies and--until the turn of the century--provided minimal regulation of business enterprises. Meanwhile, despite postbellum financial stringencies, the proliferation of government-funded educational, correctional, and welfare services continued, albeit at an erratic pace. By 1902, the state institutions noted above had been joined by a penal farm in Goochland County, an agricultural and mechanical college in Blacksburg, mental hospitals in Petersburg (for blacks) and Marion (for whites), and normal schools in Petersburg (for blacks) and Farmville (for white females). Most important, a tax-supported public education system had taken root during the 1870s and, in subsequent years, had taught the three r's to hundreds of thousands of children from the Alleghenies to the Chesapeake.
As I see it, much remains to be learned about these developments. What individuals, groups, or classes decisively shaped the outcome of Virginia's nineteenth-century public policy debates? How did the commonwealth's revenue structure evolve to sustain the costs of legislative initiatives? To what extent did the continued growth of government sponsored institutions reinforce an emerging spoils system? Who benefited (and who lost) as a result of the shift from state activism to laissez-faire in the economic realm? What role--if any--did ideological influences play in this dramatic turnabout? Why did some humanitarian issues or concerns attain a higher priority than others? Why, for example, did antebellum lawmakers apparently place greater emphasis on providing facilities for the insane and the handicapped than on educating the masses? By the same token, why were Gilded Age penal reformers successful in curbing the worst abuses of the Old Dominion's convict-lease system but unable to achieve the establishment of tax supported reformatories for youthful offenders?" How did racial and gender biases affect the quality and character of social services? We know something about most of these topics; we have comprehensive analyses of none of them.
1 Avery O. Craven, Edmund Ruffin, Southerner: A Study in Secession (1932; Baton Rouge, 1966), pp. 52-53; Virginius Dabney, Virginia: The New Dominion (Garden City, N.Y., 1972), p. 275; William M. Mathew, Edmund Run and the Crisis of Slavery in the Old South: The Failure of Agricultural Reform (Athens, Ga., and London, 1988), pp. 189-90; David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly, Away, I'm Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement (Richmond, 1993), pp. 65-108.
2 For examples of such local or regional studies, see T. Lloyd Benson, "The Plain Folk of Orange: Land, Work, and Society on the Eve of the Civil War," in Edward L. Ayers and John C. Willis, eds., The Edge of the South: Life in Nineteenth-Century Virginia (Charlottesville and London, 1991), pp. 56-78; John T. Schlebecker, "Farmers in the Lower Shenandoah Valley, 1850," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (hereafter cited as VMHB) 79 (1971): 462-76; and John Hammond Moore, "Appomattox: Profile of a Mid-Nineteenth-Century Community," VMHB 88 (1980): 478-91.
3 The Great Depression struck a later (and milder) blow to Virginia's economy than was true of most of the nation. Also, the commonwealth recovered from the financial woes of the 1930s more rapidly than all but a handful of other states. See Ronald L. Heinemann, Depression and New Deal in Virginia: The Enduring Dominion (Charlottesville, 1983).
4 David R. Goldfield, Urban Growth in the Age of Sectionalism: Virginia, 1847-1861 (Baton Rouge and London, 1977), pp. 182-225; Frederick F. Siegel, The Roots of Southern Distinctiveness: Tobacco and Society in Danville, Virginia, 1780-1865 (Chapel Hill and London, 1987), pp. 105-45; Kenneth W. Noe, Southwest Virginia's Railroad: Modernization and the Sectional Crisis (Urbana and Chicago, 1994), pp. 11-84.
5 James Tice Moore, Two Paths to the New South: The Virginia Debt Controversy, 1870-1883 (Lexington, Ky., 1974), pp. 8-11.
6 Peter J. Rachleff, Black Labor in the South: Richmond, Virginia, 1865-1890 (Philadelphia, 1984); Loren Schweninger, "The Roots of Enterprise: Black-Owned Businesses in Virginia, 1830-1880," VMHB 100 (1992): 531-40; Edna Greene Medford, "Land and Labor: The Quest for Black Economic Independence on Virginia's Lower Peninsula, 1865-1880," VMHB 100 (1992): 567-82; Lynda J. Morgan, Emancipation in Virginia's Tobacco Belt, 1850-1870 (Athens, Ga., and London, 1992), pp. 127-59, 187-209.
7 Examples of such analyses may be found in Jonathan M. Wiener, Social Origins of the New South: Alabama, 1860-1885 (Baton Rouge and London, 1978); Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry, 1850-1890 (New York and Oxford, 1983); William Cohen, At Freedom's Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861-1915 (Baton Rouge and London, 1991); and Harold D. Woodman, New South, New Law: The Legal Foundations of Credit and Labor Relations in the Postbellum Agricultural South (Baton Rouge and London, 1995).
8 Crandall A. Shifflett, Patronage and Poverty in the Tobacco South: Louisa County, Virginia, 1860-1900 (Knoxville, 1982), does pursue a line of inquiry similar to the Deep South studies. He argues that wealthy whites controlled (and limited) black agriculturalists' access to credit, farm equipment, and other productive resources. Jack P. Maddex, Jr., offers a brief discussion of debates over fence laws in The Virginia Conservatives, 1867-1879: A Study in Reconstruction Politics (Chapel Hill, 1970), pp. 176-77. On a related note, Woodman, New South, New Law, p. 60, devotes only two paragraphs to the evolution of crop lien regulations in postbellum Virginia.
9 Edward L. Ayers stresses the diverse patterns of experience and behavior in nineteenth-century Virginia in the introduction to Ayers and Willis, eds., The Edge of the South, pp. 1-8.
10 Charles S. Sydnor, Gentlemen Freeholders: Political Practices in Washington's Virginia (Chapel Hill, 1952), esp. chap. 8.
11 C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913, in Wendell Holmes Stephenson and E. Merton Coulter, eds., A History of the South, 9 (Baton Rouge, 1951), p. 4.
12 Maddex, Virginia Conservatives, pp. 173-75. See also A. E. Dick Howard, Commentaries on the Constitution of Virginia (2 vols.; Charlottesville, 1974), 2:788.
13 Paul W. Keve, The History of Corrections in Virginia (Charlottesville, 1986), pp. 65-98.
14 Quoted in Goldwin Smith, A History of England (New York, 1957), p. 345.
Brent Tarter ends his essay by quoting a remark by Winston Churchill. I think that I would do well instead to note and to heed Oliver Cromwell's admonition to the Rump Parliament in April 1653. Accompanied by musketeers, that stern-visaged general informed startled representatives that he had come to "put an end to
...prating."(14) Having prated long enough, I will conclude as I began--by expressing the hope that my suggestions will be of some use to future interpreters of Virginia's past.
* James Tice Moore is a professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University.…