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.

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.

Next Page