By Frank Blechman
Maybe our inclination as Virginians to deceive ourselves goes all the way back to the beginning.
The very first settlers at Jamestown were not (to borrow a phrase from the 20th century) the “best and the brightest.” They were adventurers, dreamers and schemers who thought they could make a fortune without knowledge, preparation, or hard work. Most of them died.
Not much later, the Royalist horse-riding dandies who lost the British civil war high-tailed it over to America to escape Cromwell’s revenge. They called themselves Cavaliers (as does UVA’s football team today) and imagined themselves as dashing heroes rather than admit that they were failed hangers-on.
When the American struggle for independence developed, Virginians were there espousing high-minded ideas about inalienable rights of freedom, while owning slaves.
Having worn out the farmland with tobacco and ruinous practices, the first families of Virginia took off for the West, seeking fame and fortune. The same fine names that graced Virginia plantations in the 18th century appear in New Orleans in the 1840s; in the gold rush of California in the 1850s, and in Alaska in the 1880s.
In other words, “The Virginia Way”–which claimed dignified civil discourse as its defining characteristic–was a myth, a fraud, a conceit from the beginning and at every step along the way.
In the US Civil War, Virginians great and less great claimed center stage as battles ranged back and forth on top of them. For all their posturing and posing, they lost.
What followed was a formal enshrinement of the myth of the “lost cause.” Textbooks glorified the “Old Dominion” and the Old South that never was. Dilettante Thomas Jefferson became “the Sage of Monticello” that he always wanted to be. Bobby Lee became a secular saint. We might have lost a war, but by god, we believed that we did it with style and dignity.
In other words, “The Virginia Way”–which claimed dignified civil discourse as its defining characteristic–was a myth, a fraud, a conceit from the beginning and at every step along the way. Professions of support for democracy and the rule of law were always hollow. A few examples will suffice.
- While preaching a gospel glorifying the yeoman farmer as the wellspring of liberty, large landholders from Thomas Jefferson and George Mason in fact made sure the laws protected their property first.
- When the “Redeemers” decided that they had enough of the Reconstruction Constitution of 1866, they wrote a new one in 1902 and put it into effect without holding any required ratifying votes. (They successfully reduced voting in the 1904 Presidential election to one half what it had been in 1900.)
- When the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 1954 that “Equal and Separate” schools were unconstitutional, the dominant political organization in the Commonwealth led by senior Senator Harry F. Byrd did not respectfully lead compliance, but instead declared “massive resistance,” defying law and closing schools.
Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with lofty aspirations. When our political leaders imagine a better world and urge us all toward it, that is an honorable and good thing to do. We would all benefit if “The Virginia Way” of respectful discourse were real.
The problem comes when we claim a glorious heritage that never was, and use that to elevate ourselves to status we have not earned. Myths help us live day to day amid events we do not understand. Myths create common bonds among diverse groups. In South Carolina, I worked with a civil rights champion who referred to purveyors of myths as “mis-leaders.” A high pedestal needs a strong base, which we lack.
The problem comes when we claim a glorious heritage that never was, and use that to elevate ourselves to status we have not earned.
My grandfather was an optimist. When he settled in Virginia 110 years ago, he said, “It is never too late to do a good thing.”
I partially share my grandfather’s positive outlook. I believe that Virginia can be the great place to live, work, and play that we claim to be IF we acknowledge that our history has been more the story of opportunists and scoundrels than of sages and benefactors. We must accept our continuing legacies:
- Slavery. Virginia was not just first, but the largest importer and slaveholding jurisdiction, eventually becoming the great exporter of slaves.
- Genocide. The Native Peoples? No rights that the white man had to recognize.
- Addiction. Wealth was built on an addictive drug, tobacco.
- Exploitive industry. First foresting, destructive agricultural practices, then mining took resources without ever thinking about sustainability.
- War profiteering. For most of the 20th century, Virginia drew heavily on defense contracting and bases to support our economy. At the end of the century, “beltway bandits” (excuse me, “Parkway Patriots”) built Northern Virginia.
- Bias. Racism, sexism, and xenophobia still rage across our land.
If we accept that this is who we are, we can create a new, more honest Virginia Way that addresses the enduring inequities in education, job opportunities, housing, health care, and criminal justice.
It won’t be easy. It won’t be pretty. I will lose some privileges I have enjoyed all of my life. Nonetheless, I would prefer to live in that Virginia than in the one we have now.