By Marc Fisher
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Virginia was unstoppable, the biggest, brightest, richest state in the new nation. Through the first decades of the American experiment, the Old Dominion dominated the revolution, the Constitutional Convention and the presidency. The state produced a cavalcade of daring, innovative leaders, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall and George Mason.
And then, says Susan Dunn, a historian at Williams College and author of "Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia," it all faded.
By the time Jefferson and Madison were old men, they witnessed the collapse of Virginia: crop failures, the crumbling of the slave economy, a narrow provincialism in politics and culture, rampant illiteracy and an infrastructure that had fallen far behind the rapidly urbanizing North.
Already in the 1820s, the seeds of today's anti-tax, anti-government attitudes were taking root. Virginia, confident birthplace of American liberty, had morphed into a conservative, nostalgic society clinging to its agricultural past, ruled by an aristocratic elite and deeply suspicious of the Yankees' investment in industry and city life.
Flash forward to last month in Richmond, where House Speaker William Howell, a Republican from Stafford County, told a group of business leaders at a $250-a-head reception that the people who've been moving to the state of late -- such as, say, immigrants -- might not be clued in on the "shared values we have in Virginia."
In this season of zesty competition to see which politician can propose the most onerous measures to take against illegal immigrants, what might those shared values be? When The Washington Post's Tim Craig called Howell to inquire, the speaker gallantly hung up on the reporter. Later, Howell's spokesman said his boss was talking about "Virginia values" -- the slogan Mr. Macaca, former senator George Allen, used in his campaigns -- such as "lower taxes, less burdensome regulations and a positive business environment."
Or is the ultimate Virginia value simply a matter of the political elite preserving its power?
In 1825, Eleanor Randolph Coolidge wrote to her grandfather, Thomas Jefferson, describing her journey to live in Boston, hailing the spanking new roads and many schoolhouses she had passed, all benefits of local taxes. Even the children of poor families attended these schools, tuition-free, she wrote, adding that "there is no tax paid with less reluctance." She also wrote: "Our Southern states cannot hope for" such prosperity "while the canker of slavery eats into their hearts and diseases the whole body."
Jefferson agreed. "One fatal stain deforms what nature had bestowed upon us," he replied.
But slavery wasn't the only belief system feeding Virginia's decline. Jefferson railed against the big cities, "infected with the mania of rambling and gambling," that were starting to dominate the economy in the North. Dunn says a "cult of the soil" steered many Virginians away from the changes that opened an era of progress up North and isolated Virginia from the intellectual and social ferment of the 19th century.
The state's powerful antipathy toward taxes relegated Virginia to backwater status, especially when it came to education. "I will put it in the power of no man or set of men to tax me without my consent," said legislator John Randolph of Roanoke in a typical rant against public education in 1829. Tax-supported schools would only encourage worthless fathers to spend more money on liquor rather than teaching their own kids, he said.
Roads, too, became a symbol of Virginia's opposition to change. While the great writer Henry Adams celebrated New England's extensive network of byways, noting that "bad roads meant bad morals," Virginians saw a different source of social rot: "Government, rightly understood, is a passive, not an active machine," Gov. William Giles said in 1827. "The less government has to do with the concerns of society, the better." The state resisted spending on roads, canals and railroads -- and opposed Northern politicians' advocacy of open immigration policies -- through much of the 1800s.
Dunn sees a through line from those early decades to the state's resistance to FDR's New Deal. Virginia's senators were two of only six to vote against creating Social Security.
Virginia values? For nearly 200 years, the state has hewed to the ideals of low taxes, limited services and resistance to newcomers, Dunn says. "They don't want roads, they don't want schools, they don't want large cities. And yet they're idealistic, with this great vision of yeoman farmers, of rugged individualism in the name of real Virginia values."
Today, Virginia "should be glad to have new blood coming in," the historian says.
Instead, legislators scurry to pick up the pieces after their latest attempt to fool the voters blew up in their faces: the cynical attempt to pay for new roads without raising taxes but, rather, by imposing steep abuser fees on drivers.
Now Howell and friends, anticipating the voters' wrath in next month's elections, wrap themselves once more in Virginia values, lashing out at immigrants every which way they can.
Will it work? Those outsiders Howell and his fellow Republicans so fear can and do vote. Just ask the state's two most recent governors, Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.