The Magazine

The New Dominion

A look at Virginia since, as well as before, Appomattox.

Jan 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 17 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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Cradle of America

Four Centuries of Virginia History

by Peter Wallenstein

Kansas, 476 pp., $29.95

The traditional lineaments of Virginia history are familiar to most Americans. Who does not know at least an anecdote or two about Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, colonial Williamsburg, the Founding Fathers, or Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy? They dominate the state's story. Indeed, for much of the 20th century and beyond, Virginia history seemed to end at Appomattox.

To historians, the tale is more complex, and more contested, than these celebrated icons of Virginia's past encompass. Unfortunately, we have lacked a vehicle for conveying that richer narrative beyond the often self-referential confines of the academy. Now, in Cradle of America, we have a compact account that distills and interprets for a general audience the breadth of recent scholarship on Virginia's history.

In fact, this past year we had two brand new comprehensive works. In addition to the volume under review, there is also Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607-2007 (Virginia, 432 pp., $29.95), a splendid narrative by the Hampden-Sydney historian Ronald Heinemann and three colleagues. This embarrassment of riches came about because 2007 marked the 400th year since the founding of Jamestown--much to the delight of the state's tourism machine--and historians seized a golden opportunity to contribute their own perspective.

Wallenstein has deliberately crafted a back-loaded account. That is, by design he devotes more pages to the more recent half of Virginia history than to the earlier period. This approach inverts the usual treatment. For too long, he suggests, stories of colonization, the heyday of Virginia's hegemony in the early republic, and the Civil War have dominated the storytelling. These elements take their place in Cradle of America but in context with much more.

Within the constraints of relating four centuries of recorded history, the author does a commendable job of enlivening the big themes with thumbnail sketches of representative, flesh-and-blood Virginians. And he populates those sketches with many obscure individuals, not just luminaries. Like the sketches, a generous sprinkling of sidebars allows him to inject excerpts from important texts without cluttering or slowing the brisk narrative. In addition, his captions to the many illustrations deserve praise on their own. Taken together, they provide their own idiosyncratic history of the state (though placing the photograph of Edgar Allan Poe in the 20th century takes quirkiness a bit too far).

Wallenstein frankly states at the outset that his major themes will be political power, racial identity, and public education. The first two are standard, the third something of a surprise. It could be argued that economic development and religion far outrank the third element of this trinity. In fairness, the author deftly follows the thorny trail of disestablishing the Anglican Church after the Revolution, though he might have given more scope to the evangelical movement of the same era as a shaper of Virginians' sensibilities.

Wallenstein is especially good at describing the long, convoluted growth of slavery, which coexisted with indentured servitude in the early years before becoming the dominant form of labor. Some change came after independence, when a temporary liberalization allowed owners to manumit their slaves privately. This led to an increase in the number of free black Virginians.

Wallenstein makes the centrality of slavery clear in his discussion of the three-fifths compromise, without which there would have been no United States Constitution. (For purposes of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives, and therefore influencing the makeup of the Electoral College, each slave counted as three-fifths of a person.) That compromise had a long reach and even complicated politics beyond the Civil War: "So in death as in life, southern slavery roiled national politics," he writes.