In his proclamation recognizing April 2010 as Confederate History Month Governor McDonnell said this “defining chapter in Virginia’s history should be studied [and] understood.” This is a laudable exhortation on the Governor’s part. No doubt many Virginians will set about reading or rereading accounts of the Civil War itself, although the results of its battles are already widely known about and the details of which pretty well understood by now.
What was it about Virginia’s history that influenced Virginia’s decision to join the Confederacy? At the time of the Revolution against the British Empire, Virginia was one of the wealthiest and most influential of the original thirteen colonies. No other state produced as many of the newly declared nation’s Founding Fathers or as much of its early revenue as did Virginia.
But even while Virginia was providing 4 out of the first 5 presidents of the new republic, the Old Dominion was steadily declining. By the 1830s, Virginia had come to rank at or near the bottom in nearly every measure of wealth, health, influence, and quality of life, including literacy. There it remained until Fort Sumter.
The history of Virginia’s deterioration following the Revolutionary War is well described and documented in Dominion of Memories, by Williams College historian Susan Dunn. Briefly, the Tidewater landholding elite fostered conservative policies that restricted suffrage, ignored research in proper soil management, discouraged state financial support for education and transportation infrastructure, and promoted states’ rights.
Because of cultural abhorrence of industrial development and the decline in soil-grown agricultural products, slaves became one of the dominant “crops” produced by Virginia’s plantations for interstate commercial trade. By the time of the call to join the Confederacy, slavery was too economically important to give up, no matter what reasons the Virginia ruling elite put on the face of their decision to secede.
The tale of Virginia’s mid-Nineteenth Century decline as told in Dominion of Memories is morbidly fascinating, like reading a biologist’s detailed account of an animal’s death by slow disease, and subsequent decomposition and corruption. But then the horrifying realization dawns on the reader that the attitudes and prescriptions of present day Virginia conservatives are remarkably similar to those that determined the Old Dominion’s descent to secession.