Virginia History as Southern History

By Ayers, Edward L. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Virginia History as Southern History

Ayers, Edward L., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

BRENT TARTER has done such a thorough and imaginative job of alerting readers to the possibilities of Virginia history that it is difficult to know what to add. His knowledge of sources is surely unmatched, his feel for the subtleties of Virginia's history unparalleled. Rather than competing with that knowledge, this essay takes another tack altogether. While Tarter builds from the ground up, suggesting topics that might grow out of records no one has fully explored, we might also think about models of study offered by recent writings in Virginia history and on other states. This essay briefly surveys some of the best work that has been done over the last ten years or so in the field of nineteenth-century Virginia and southern history in general, hoping to supply inspiration for histories yet to be written.

Virginia history has undergone a renaissance in recent years. Although the historiography of the colonial and the early national periods has long been superb, the same could not always be said for the century after 1820. Vast stretches of Virginia history lay fallow, not unlike the weary fields of the antebellum Chesapeake. The state did not seem typical enough of the nation, or even the South, to attract many young scholars looking for a case study. Nineteenth-century Virginia's cities, factories, wheat fields, truck farms, oyster beds, and orchards set it apart from the cotton fields of supposedly quintessential southern states, while its widespread slavery set it apart from Atlantic seaboard states to the north.

Despite these apparent liabilities, Virginia has attracted a growing number of talented historians undeterred by the state's uniqueness. Indeed, not a few scholars have written superb books that make no apologies for their subject's unseemly mix of modernity and slavery. In her path-breaking volume The Free Women of Petersburg, Suzanne Lebsock asked rhetorically, "Why Petersburg?" as a case study of southern women, black and white. Her answer was refreshing: "Why not?" Marie Tyler-McGraw placed the tensions and conflicts in Richmond at the center of her history of the city. She ignored neither the rapid changes the city was undergoing in the nineteenth century nor its strong attachments to the past. Lynda J. Morgan explored slavery in central Virginia with an eye alert to the adaptations that slaves, free blacks, employers, and owners made to the shifting opportunities and constraints of the years surrounding the Civil War. Ten graduate students at the University of Virginia published penetrating essays around the theme of anomaly in a collection called The Edge of the South. Kenneth W. Noe's recent study of southwest Virginia on the eve of secession emphasized a crisis of modernity.(1)

Historians have found sources in Virginia that have permitted them to write studies possible for no other place. Daniel W. Crofts discovered complete voting records for Southampton County from the 1820s through the 1870s, records that allowed him to explore, on a person-by-person level, the intricacies of the political and economic systems of a county over several decades. With a sure eye for detail and an expert's knowledge of the nation's political dynamics, Crofts has written one of the most interesting and useful books we have on nineteenth-century American politics. When we can see how each white man in a county voted, we can see how deeply enmeshed the political system was with neighborhoods, with patrons and clients, with church membership, with economic status, with unfolding events. Old Southampton tells us more about the nation's and the region's political system than books that cover far greater stretches of geography.(2)

Brenda E. Stevenson's exciting new book, Life in Black and White, explores family life among the people of both races. By examining in great detail the rituals of courtship, marriage, childbirth, and divorce in Loudoun County throughout the antebellum era, Stevenson allows us to imagine that complicated society in a new way. …

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