Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History • Peter Wallenstein • Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007 • xviii, 476 pp. • $29.95
Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia, 1607–2007 • Ronald L. Heinemann, John G. Kolp, Anthony S. Parent, Jr., and William G. Shade • Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007 • xiv, 398 pp. • $29.95
Reviewed by John T. Kneebone, associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a former editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography project at the Library of Virginia.
These welcome narrative histories of Virginia are occasioned by the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the English settlement at Jamestown, and they will serve as useful legacies of it. More important, time and new scholarship have outdated Virginius Dabney's Virginia: The New Dominion (1971), the most recent narrative with comparable ambitions. Teachers, students, and history buffs yearned for an up-to-date Virginia history, and suddenly we have two of them. Which to read? Each has virtues, but they differ enough that choosing just one and not the other is difficult.
Both books are collaborative efforts. The four distinguished authors of Old Dominion, New Commonwealth (ODNC) narrate a century apiece. Parent covers the seventeenth century, Kolp the eighteenth, Shade the nineteenth century to the Civil War, and Heinemann handles the rest of the story. Heinemann, with assistance from Kolp, editorially scrutinized the text so that it reads almost seamlessly.
Although Wallenstein's name alone appropriately appears on the title page of his book, it was also a joint project, and includes the work of undergraduate students at Virginia Tech, where he has long taught. He invited colleagues to contribute as well. Wallenstein "massaged" their materials, and his voice is "much the dominant one," but the book eschews the single authoritative voice of ODNC to adopt a variety of tones, and it enhances the narrative with vignettes and biographical sketches (p. 444). For example, the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe receives in ODNC a soundly argued but straightforward analysis of their likely feelings and the strategic meaning of the union (pp. 27–28). Cradle of America folds the marriage into Rolfe's experiments with growing Caribbean tobacco and finds symbolic meanings in both that embrace "the North Atlantic world" and the dream that the Powhatans and the English "might live peacefully together" (p. 20).
Despite the editorial consensus in ODNC, four authors and 400 years of history make for some analytical inconsistencies. The chapter on the "planter's patriarchy" in the eighteenth century closes with a description of challenges from the planters' wives, children, and slaves that pointed toward a "paternalistic way of governing" (p. 89). Yet, the chapter on the Virginia Dynasty employs the term of patriarchy well into the nineteenth century. Then the organizing principle for the next chapter, on "Democratizing the Old Dominion," is political conflict between "the traditional center and the reform-minded periphery," resulting in a "liberal democratic political culture" at mid-century (pp. 173, 189). These are powerful explanatory concepts, with a historiography behind each of them, but the terms appear, disappear, and sometimes reappear, as does "a new patriarchal order" in the mid-1880s (p. 260). Indeed, might not conflict between "the traditional center and the reform-minded periphery" serve to conceptualize the disaster of massive resistance to school desegregation in the mid-twentieth century?
Wallenstein states that he stands consciously in Blacksburg, in western Virginia, and his discussion of the antebellum conflicts sets east against west, a regional division that mirrors the center-periphery approach of ODNC. His chapter title refers to the collision of three Virginias, but his third Virginia—the enslaved—merits just a paragraph on Gabriel's conspiracy in 1800 and a page on Nat Turner's Rebellion of 1831. Rather, Cradle of America's next chapter on "Race and Slavery" effectively treats the enormity of the slave trade as integral to a larger out-migration that populated territories to the west and left Virginia "hostage to events outside its borders" (p. 164). For ODNC, Virginia's situation was self-created, as "the ruling hierarchy" rejected modernization as a threat to its authority and to white supremacy (p. 209).
Both books tell much the same story about secession and the Civil War in Virginia, though Wallenstein does note that those migrants from Virginia to the Midwest and their sons fought for the Union, not the Confederacy, "a mighty difference as the war weighed in the balance" (p. 201). For ODNC, the story of Reconstruction is political and encompasses the rise and fall of the biracial Readjuster coalition in the mid-1880s. Wallenstein is a historian of the law and of education, and his account presents laws (and constitutional amendments) as forces for change. Whereas ODNC explains the Readjusters through the politics of state debt, Cradle of America presents the new system of public education and innovations in higher education as central to the Readjusters' appeal.
These explanatory variations continue through the volumes' accounts of Virginia in the twentieth century. It is interesting, then, that the political narrative of ODNC makes the stronger case for the post-1945 era as a social revolution. Cradle of America tells of the tireless civil rights lawyers and the step-by-step decisions of the courts and meshes the desegregation of Virginia's colleges and universities with the development of the higher education system as a marker of modernization. ODNC gives the story of how Harry Flood Byrd, Sr., and his political organization stifled Virginia government until demographic and economic transformations and the courts and the civil rights movement finally brought down the organization. Onetime Byrd stalwart Mills E. Godwin gets credit for transforming the state's government in the mid-1960s in the "most constructive" governorship of the century (p. 360). As for Byrd, "it is remarkable how little of his regime is left" (p. 369).
ODNC is a book with a thesis. Virginia provided the "dominant mainstream model" for North American development to about 1820, but it fell into a "defensive . . . and different version" that lasted until about 1960. Only in the late twentieth century did Virginia "again" become "a progressively conservative society" (p. x). Such a thesis does not require a focus on politics and power, but those are the themes of the book. Cradle of America, too, stresses a theme of politics and power (p. xv), although it closes less with a thesis than with a shrug—"continuity and change, conflict and consensus—dated back 400 years" (p. 408).
Both books are founded on a quarter-century's outpouring of scholarship from Virginia archives, as excellent bibliographies demonstrate. Students of Virginia history ought to examine how these authors constructed their narratives out of those monographs and articles as a guide for future research. In the meantime, which to read? Both, of course.