From Dynasty to Disfranchisement: Some Reflections about Virginia History, 1820-1902

Article excerpt

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. …