I am currently reading and enjoying Susan Dunn’s Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia (Basic Books, 2007), which explores the period between the 1820s and the Civil War. Dunn writes well, but most importantly the book is filling in a significant gap in my understanding of the state’s history. According to Dunn, Virginia went from a national leader during the Early Republic to a declining economy whose leaders held tightly to a provincial view which provided little opportunity for a large portion of its white population. Planters defaulted on their loans and gradually became more defensive about their northern neighbors and foreign observers who visited the region and were shocked to discover the lack of productivity on Virginia’s farms and the pervasiveness of poverty. Dunn attributes Virginia’s downfall to a combination of its ruling
elite adhering to a “gentlemanly” way of life, its obsession with
states’ rights and the retention of slavery.
As I was reading it occurred to me how strange it is that so many white Americans identify and even praise such a stratified and rigid society. Whenever I read a story in a newspaper about some kind of reenactment or other such event which involves a nostalgic identification with the antebellum South I have to wonder about the content of their memories. After all, the individuals who typically take part in these events seem to be best categorized as hard working
white males who fall somewhere within a middle-class bracket. If so, why such a strong identification with the more idealistic elements of the antebellum South or myth of the Cavalier? Why do we hold up elite white men as worthy of emulation or as embodying a character that is typically viewed as distinct and which stands in sharp contrast with white northerners. Antebellum Virginia seems so far removed from the values that most Americans today hold dear that it seems we must give up quite a bit of our own sense of justice and assumptions surrounding the proper role of government to come to an empathetic identification with that particular past, especially when it comes to its upper class.
Elite white Virginians who dominated the state legislature in the decades leading to the Civil War did not govern for the majority of the population. Their tight hold on slavery and states rights translated into very few public works projects or internal improvements such as roads and canals that would benefit the largest number of white Virginians. Public schools were also not high on the list of priorities. [Note to my more insecure readers: Please don’t read this as a North=good guys v. South=bad guys post.] Most importantly, white Virginians themselves acknowledged that their reliance on slavery had reinforced a culture of laziness among all classes of whites who identified strenuous activity with slavery; Jefferson and Madison recognized that the more ambitious were leaving the state in favor of increased opportunities out west. The lack of financial assets resulted in poor roads which left large sections of the state, especially in the more isolated region of western Virginia, cut off from new technologies and incapable of taking part in a more vibrant national economy.
Dunn argues that the planters had very good reasons to oppose large-scale projects in the mountains: Anything that benefited the largely non-slaveholding western part of Virginia posed a threat to the Tidewater. A rail connection to Atlantic ports and markets might have transformed the Allegheny coalfields into an industrial center, shifting power away from the agricultural east. “Virginia’s elite had no desire to spur the rise of a new class of men who might compete with them politically and economically,” Dunn writes. Slave owners risked losing their representation in the state and national legislatures, which, for the time being, blocked any abolitionist sentiment. On the eve of the Civil War the bitter divide between eastern and western Virginians was potentially just as explosive as the debate on the national level between North and South.
Indeed, according to Dunn and most historians who write about this period, slavery resided at the center of southern society. For people today who place such a high value on democracy and equal opportunity it’s hard to imagine why so many continue to romanticize the South. Where do they think they would fall in such a stratified society if they had been alive at this time? Perhaps I am wrong, but I am willing to venture that most Americans today who romanticize this period imagine a unified body of white southerners who placed equal value on a peaceful-agrarian society in defiance of a more impersonal and dark industrial North. Because of Edmund Morgan’s fine study of slavery and politics in Virginia and more recent studies we now know better. It is almost impossible to imagine Americans today being satisfied with a state government run along the lines of Virginia’s before the war.