Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Grandees of Government: The Origins and Persistence of Undemocratic Politics in Virginia

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Grandees of Government: The Origins and Persistence of Undemocratic Politics in Virginia

Article excerpt

The Grandees of Government: The Origins and Persistence of Undemocratic Politics in Virginia. By Brent Tarter. (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2013. Pp. [x], 453. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-8139-3431-0.)

It would be difficult to overstate Brent Tarter's contributions to the study of Virginia's history. During a long career at the Library of Virginia, as cofounder of the annual Virginia Forum, and as the founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Tarter has supported and promoted many other historians' work. His own scholarship has appeared in numerous articles and public presentations, which in The Grandees of Government: The Origins and Persistence of Undemocratic Politics in Virginia are deftly blended into a sweeping history of "the ideas of the men who created and of the men and women who defended and challenged the political institutions and practices of Virginia" over the past four hundred years (p. 8). When one steps back to view Virginia history as a whole, Tarter argues, what stands out most clearly is the persistence of "undemocratic" politics from 1607 to the present, sustained by a combination of conscious manipulation by established elites and the creation of a political culture that is rich in the rhetoric of liberty and freedom yet inherently resistant to equality and change. Although Tarter does not systematically explore the term democracy, he appears to be searching for some basic fairness, evenhandedness, civil equality, and equality of opportunity in Virginia's history.

Each of Tarter's fifteen chapters sketches out a revealing moment in Virginia's political history in which the "grandees" retained control of Virginia and thwarted democracy (p. 6). The precise nature of these alternatives to democracy, the composition of the elite class, and their strategies for holding on to power, however, were always in flux. At first they depended on slavery and, later, on racial theories in the absence of slavery; sometimes the grandees wielded republican ideology to maintain their position, and at other times they manipulated the language of democracy to the same end.

The pattern was established, Tarter suggests, in 1619, when the first representative assembly in English America "took the first steps in creating two antithetical social systems, republican government and slavery" (p. 31). Class, Tarter asserts, continued to divide white Virginians, as evidenced by a vigorous challenge by common folks in Bacon's Rebellion (1676). By the eighteenth century slaves had replaced many poor whites, which dampened class divisions among whites and secured the political power of the planter elite. Virginia's state constitutions of 1776, 1830, and 1851 all perpetuated planter dominance, though the 1851 constitution was something of a strategic retreat on their part. After the Civil War a new coalition of elites, expanded to include industrialists, merchants, and mine owners, worked to undo the momentary and incomplete democratization of the Reconstruction era. Their

victory came with the Virginia constitution of 1902, which a prominent supporter praised for '"purging your electorate'" and creating '"an Anglo-Saxon electorate'" (p. 268). The dominance of the Harry F. Byrd machine from the 1920s to the 1960s depended on this restricted electoral foundation. Tarter concludes by demonstrating the persistence of undemocratic politics since the 1960s despite the challenges posed by an expanded electorate and the influx of new Virginia residents, especially in the northern counties, who are not necessarily wedded to the old ways. …

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