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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Wallenstein emphasizes chronic east-west tension as a main undercurrent in Virginia's story. This, too, had much to do with slavery and persisted from the time settlers first moved west across the mountains through the Civil War. Wealth and slaves concentrated in eastern Virginia, which jealously guarded its hold on political influence, to the growing irritation of the population beyond the Alleghenies, which owned comparatively few slaves. Just as the three-fifths compromise on the national level enhanced the power of slave owners, slaves boosted the representation of eastern Virginia. To make matters worse from the perspective of the westerners, taxation fell unequally on white Virginians. It penalized those in the west whose property was in land, rather than those in the east, whose wealth derived largely from owning human property, which was more lightly taxed.

If the 1830 state convention had heeded cries for fairer representation for western Virginians, the outcome of the debate over slavery two years later, after Nat Turner's bloody insurrection, just might have turned out differently. As it was, the continuing sectional divide within Virginia fueled the break-up of the state during the secession crisis of 1861. For decades thereafter, the new state of West Virginia squabbled with its parent over how to divide the prewar state debt.

When he turns to conditions after the war, Wallenstein answers the familiar question about change versus continuity vis-à-vis antebellum times with a concise couplet: "Whites tended to see far too much change. Blacks saw too much continuity."

As might be expected, given his stated intention to make race one of the three themes of his book, Wallenstein devotes considerable attention to the modern civil rights movement. He is especially good in limning the antecedents to Brown v. Board of Education and demonstrating how the movement for equal rights gathered steam long before 1954.

Despite his interest in recent times, though, he writes surprisingly little about the modern urban underclass and attendant problems. Although he commendably does not let older Virginia history overshadow the recent past, this balanced treatment still does not quite give the economic story enough scope. Take the Great Depression and World War II: Together, they transformed Virginia and integrated it, and the rest of the South, into the nation for the first time since the Civil War. But they rate barely 25 pages out of the 400 in Cradle of America.

Virginians are sometimes accused of holding too expansive a view of their state's importance. There's a good reason why an apocryphal quip about early land claims, attributed to William Byrd II, stays in circulation: "In the beginning, all America was Virginia." But the title of Wallenstein's book does not exaggerate the state's role in the formation of the nation. Given this title, it is perhaps an irony that the author prefers to tell the later story, when Virginia exerted less influence on the national stage, rather than dwell on those earlier years. Even so, he presents both halves of the story well. Readers can learn much about each part, both the settling and founding of the state and nation, and the century-and-a-half since Appomattox, when Virginia languished as a parochial backwater before rejoining the larger society in the mid-20th century.

Nelson D. Lankford, editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, is the author, most recently, of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861.