VIRGINIA had once been the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful state in the Union. But by the 1830s the formerly rich Tidewater agricultural region had been languishing for a number of years, and the few commercial centers in the state were unable to compete for western business because of a lack of both capital and an efficient internal- improvement system. Psychologically and economically this had a profound political impacu upon citizens of the Old Dominion, who in the 1830s and 1840s were making a concerted effort to regain their lost political power and prestige as well as their economic solvency.
The Tidewater region, extending from the coast to the first falls on the rivers, was worst hit by an agricultural depression that dated from the eighteenth century. Faced with a declining white population, depleted soils that would no longer profitably grow tobacco, and a growing slave population that many felt could no longer be efficiently used, these planters of the 1830s were desperately trying to find some way out of their genteel poverty. Recalling days when the Tidewater had been a wealthy tobacco-producing area, one Virginian plaintively questioned,
Where . . . are our arts, our literature, our manufacture, our commerce? . . . What has become of our political rank and eminence in the Union? . . . Whither has the Genius of Virginia fled?. . . Virginia has now declined and is declining -- she has sunk to be the third, and will soon sink lower on the scale.1