Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Late Antebellum Virginia Reconsidered

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Late Antebellum Virginia Reconsidered

Article excerpt


LATE antebellum Virginia was a land of paradox. The Old Dominion had the largest total population and the largest slave population of any southern state. Its economic and social characteristics, however, made the commonwealth increasingly distinct from the Deep South. More than has often been recognized, mid-nineteenth-century Virginia's identity and allegiance hung in the balance.

Traditional stereotypes no longer apply. William G. Shade's prizewinning book, Democratizing the Old Dominion, caps a growing body of modern scholarship that rejects the image of a land populated by "decadent aristocrats" who "favor[ed] heart over head," who were obsessed with "reliving scenes from Ivanhoe," and who remained frozen in a late eighteenth-century time warp "as the modern world passed them by." John Tyler was not the representative Virginian of his era. Shade contends instead that this sprawling and diverse state experienced "the same dynamic economic and social development that characterized the country as a whole" and was as good a microcosm of national trends as any other state.1

Viewed in this context, Virginia's secession from the Union and key role in the violent convulsion between 1861 and 1865 is almost a cause for wonderment. How did it come about that the state embarked on such a course-and then lobotomized itself so as to pretend that ritual suicide had been proper, logical, inevitable, and heroic? This essay argues that Virginia's political leaders exaggerated the Old Dominion's affinity for Deep South particularism. Even though economic and social trends indicated otherwise, Virginia Democrats liked to pretend that their state was as southern as any. They insisted on writing blank checks for Deep South extremists. When their purported friends presented these checks for payment in 1860 and early 1861, Virginia Democrats found themselves in trouble. Their southern rights charade stalled-but too late to avert disaster.

The best way to understand late antebellum Virginia is to look at its economic, social, and political components, taking many cues from Shade, from Brent Tarter's magisterial "New Virginia Bookshelf" published in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 1996, and from the responses to his essay by Jane Turner Censer, Edward L. Ayers, and James Tice Moore.2

Let us look first at economic trends. One of the most enduring stereotypes of nineteenth-century Virginia is that of agricultural decline-of ruined tobacco fields reverting back into forest as those who once lived and worked there fled (or were sold) to the southwest. The stereotype is misleading, even if based on a kernel of truth. Like all other states on the Atlantic seaboard, Virginia experienced out-migration. The rich soils of the Mississippi valley lured many Virginians away. But Virginia adapted and prospered. In Shade's view, "antebellum Virginia had a balanced and thriving agricultural economy." It enjoyed "agricultural revival rather than decline" and "clearly held its own as the leading agricultural state in the South." It ranked among the leading states in producing the two key staple grains, corn and wheat, it sold quantities of livestock and seafood, it shipped garden crops up the east coast, and it remained by far the top tobacco-- growing state in the nation. Rising output and prices made the 1850s a particularly good decade for the Old Dominion's agriculturalists.3

Virginia's nonagricultural sector became increasingly formidable in the late antebellum period. Fewer than half the adult white males listed in occupational records for the 1850 census identified themselves as "farmers" or "planters." Nearly one-third of all Virginians lived in counties that included a significant town or city, exposed to urban markets and ideas. A growing segment of the state's labor force worked for wages in pursuits other than agriculture. Among these workers were many recent immigrants from Ireland and Germany. …

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