Making History in Virginia

Article excerpt

Some people shape the course of human events, which is what the words "making history" usually suggest. Other people write about or interpret the course of human events for others, which in its own way is also "making history." Historians inside and outside the academy, curators, archivists, librarians, and interpreters at historic sites and at museums all transmit information and insights to other people in a variety of ways. They speak and write words, narrate events, and try to decipher their meanings. Participants in historic events also spoke and wrote words or made drawings or maps, generated oral traditions, or left artifacts or footprints or graffiti, making history by their actions and also making history by how they created and preserved information about their actions and by how they told their stories.

Beginning with the original narratives of 1607 and for the next three centuries, the writers who interpreted Virginia's history were the same people who made the history. Almost all the historical literature about Virginia that was written before the twentieth century was a product of the participants and of interested bystanders. Not until the twentieth century did academic scholars begin to write what they thought were disinterested historical narratives. One distinguishing feature of the early narratives that the early scholarly writers continued is that Virginia's long history has on the whole been written in the voices of English-speaking white men and has preserved their actions and perspectives at the expense of the actions and perspectives of women, African Americans, and Virginia's Indians. Recent historical scholarship has begun to challenge that perspective by examining the lives and experiences of the majority of Virginians who were effectively left out of the first drafts of Virginia history.

Some of the most important and resonant themes in this state's, in this region's, and in our nation's long histories can be traced right back to the first days of the Virginia colony. American, African, and English cultures met and interacted in Virginia under circumstances that were different from the other places where they intersected in the New World, and the outcomes were unique to the time and place even as they shared characteristics with different outcomes elsewhere. The origins and first institutions of representative government arose in Virginia before any other English-speaking settlers arrived in any other place. People of African origin arrived in Virginia before English-speaking people established enduring settlements anywhere else in North America, setting the stage for the evolution of chattel racial slavery later in the seventeenth century. The early episodes of Virginia's history featured opposing cultures and intimate interactions of persons with differing perspectives and interests, and the events of the ensuing decades and centuries often juxtaposed conflicting practices. We see liberty and slavery, freedom and bondage, religious liberty and intolerance, high ideals and unfulfilled dreams. Much else in the history of the United States and of the American South that might not properly be regarded as beginning in Virginia also had important antecedents or developed in influential ways in those early years in Virginia. The consequences of those cultural and economic and military and political encounters and actions have been working themselves out ever since. Virginia's history consequently assumes a large and special place in the national narrative. When we step back and evaluate those large themes over long periods of time we might well be reminded of the appropriateness of the titles of two of the many books that have tried to interpret some of those complex themes of that long history, Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History and C. Vann Woodward's The Burden of Southern History. '

This broad, swift survey of the making of history in Virginia focuses on major, long-term trends and as a consequence necessarily slights or omits the anomalous or the exceptional and neglects some subtleties. …