A Good Southerner: The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia

By Craig M. Simpson | Go to book overview
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Chapter 9 A Futile Effort to Revive the Old Dominion

Wise took office during a time of rising optimism that his own confident predictions helped sustain. Steady tobacco and wheat prices meant widespread prosperity. Economic diversification strengthened Virginia's position relative to other Southern states and encouraged hopes that she would reclaim her fabled grandeur. Slavery had proven more versatile than its critics believed, chiefly because slave-hiring and rental mechanisms appealed to eastern Virginians and encouraged those who argued for the system's indispensability. 1 But Virginia's economic growth depended on her ability to keep and attract labor and capital. Slave sales to the Deep South literally embodied the continuing departure of both, although helping to finance economic diversification. This result vexed some obsessed Yankee abolitionists. 2 Virginians admitted its significance--at least in their more candid moments. Wise, however, remained silent. He worried instead about the continuing exodus of whites, Virginia's capital requirements, and the intolerable and undeniable decline of Virginia's influence in national affairs.

Wise believed that a coordinated and energetic renewal program could produce sufficient political democracy and economic growth in Virginia to preserve slavery until the time when it might be eliminated painlessly. These objectives led him to support what I call the "Virginia consensus." This policy, reflecting the mandate of the Constitutional Convention of 1850-51, would integrate slavery with modernization. No one during the 1850s wrestled more intensively with Virginia's classic dilemma: how to take on the trappings of modernity, as Maryland was doing, while simultaneously remaining a slave state until it became safe to exile the blacks. But the lateness of the hour, the vastness of the endeavor, and the crippling effects of national politics on his gubernatorial administration fragmented Wise in the end. Adding to his problems were his difficulties in trusting people.

Although most Virginia politicians sustained the consensus, none confused Wise with his lackadaisical, platitudinous prede


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