The Enduring Spirit of Virginia

By Garrett Epps

0f all rhetorical modes, Virginians are most comfortable with the elegiac. Almost from the earliest days of English settlement in Virginia, its people have been complaining that the great days are gone, that outside forces have overwhelmed the old way of life, and that the things that made the Old Dominion unique have now fled, never to return. These laments for a vanished past have taken on new intensity in the half century since this book was published. Indeed, many thoughtful people now believe that regionalism is a spent force in American life and that the geographical peculiarities that inspired the WPA state guides survive only as faded memories.

Certainly the pace of change has been merciless, and the forces of centralization strong. Television, computers, telecommunications, air travel, the interstate highway system, corporate integration, and mass migration have remade every institution--from family, to farm and workplace, to local, state, and federal government. In the 1990s, Americans are entering a new period of transformation, with changes occurring on a global scale and at a computerized pace. Decisions made in Tokyo and Riyadh increasingly determine the texture of life in American cities, towns, and farms. All this has given added force to the sense of separation disappearing, to the idea that the South, as a distinct region in American life, is "a Civilization gone with the wind."

In this context we would do well to recall the words of French historian Fernand Braudel, who charted the course of history in the Mediterranean through many centuries. Braudel concluded from his study that civilizations are like sand dunes, blown and shifted by winds that may replace each individual grain of sand, yet, after storm and change, are found standing in much the same place. "We shall not allow ourselves to repeat the often-voiced opinion that 'civilizations are mortal,"' Braudel wrote. "Mortal perhaps are their ephemeral blooms, the intricate and short-lived creations of an age, their economic triumphs and their social trials, in the short term. But their foundations remain. They are not indestructible, but they are many times more solid that one might imagine. They have withstood a thousand supposed deaths, their massive bulk unmoved by the monotonous pounding of the centuries."¹

Throughout its history, I would argue, Virginia has been the center of a highly distinctive civilization-- a place where European settlers and their descendants faced unprecedented problems and forged original, often flawed, and almost always influential solutions. Virginia, I think, remains a distinctive civilization to this day.

This is not to deny that we would search in vain for the sleepy, segregated, rural dominion described in the pages of Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion. The years since 1940 have transformed the nation in fundamental ways, and they have had more impact on the South than on the nation as a whole. If the South has changed more than the rest of the country, Virginia has changed more than most of the South. Statistics cannot tell the story, but they may indicate its magnitude. When Virginia was published, the state had a population of 2.7 million, nearly two-thirds of whom lived in rural areas. Its per capita personal income ranked thirtieth among the forty-eight states. Today, Virginia's people number 6.2 million. Slightly more than two-thirds live in cities, and their per capita income ranks twelfth in the nation. Fifty years ago, Virginia was proud but poor and backward, living on the psychic capital of a historic past and isolated intellectually, economically, and socially from the life of the nation. Today, instead of lagging behind the nation, Virginia is cutting further into the future than any of its neighbors.

The economic changes, sweeping though they are, are only a small part of the transformation that Virginia has experienced in the last fifty years. When Virginia was written, the state was a part of the segregated South; a reader will find the chilling traces of segregation in its listings, which primly note how many hotels, picture houses, swimming pools, and tennis courts in each town are open to "Negroes." The segregated system is nearly forgotten today, or remembered at most as a period of aberrant bigotry. But segregation, as it existed in the South from the turn of the twentieth century until the 1960s, was in fact unique in American history: a comprehensive racial, social, and legal system that oppressed all those it governed, black and white. It bears comparison with South African apartheid, and it was the closest thing Americans have ever created to an authentic native totalitarianism.

For the more than half a century of its life, segregation stunted every aspect of southern life. It was an inner wound that rendered social progress impossible and made the southern states pariahs in the American family. That system was dismantled through the courage and creativity of southern black people and the integrity of federal law, and its destruction was the final step that liberated the energies of southern whites and blacks. Before the civil rights movement, Virginia, like other southern states, was caught in inner stalemate and hopelessness. After the movement's success, the region and the state became a place where anything seemed possible. Virginia's new-found prosperity and optimism flow from that liberating peaceful revolution.

Perhaps the best way to gauge the transformation of Virginia since then would be to repeat the "symbolic approach" Douglas Southall Freeman recommended in his introduction to the first edition of Virginia--"a southward journey from the bridge that joins the Lincoln Memorial with Arlington." That river crossing, Freeman wrote in 1940, carried the traveler into a land where "life itself has a different tempo ... more leisured without being essentially indolent." Today, the Memorial Bridge hurtles passengers into the bustling futurescape of northern Virginia, a populous, affluent network of cities and suburbs where mass transit, computers, and the automobile are combining to create the prototype for an entirely new type of community. There is a different tempo--but it is faster not slower, and newer not older, than that of the central city north of the Potomac.

The rest of Virginia's landscape today is a similar panorama of confidence and change. The old eastern cities, which not long ago were sad, sleepy, and dependent on an agricultural economy, are now rich, busy, and diversified. They are centers for finance, transport, manufacturing, and services. Much of the farm economy has been remade by technology, the global market, and the growth of corporate agriculture.

What, then, has become of the Old Dominion we will read about in Virginia? In the midst of the new landscape, I would suggest, the continuity is striking. The glossy new surface of Virginia covers a familiar skeleton.

What makes Virginia what it is? The first answer is water. The Chesapeake Bay and the rich system of rivers that feeds it--the Potomac, the York, the Rappahannock, the James, and their countless tributaries--made Virginia a natural site for colonization and exploration and fostered the growth of a plantation economy. The lapping of those waters is the unceasing, rhythmic refrain to all of Virginia history. They were the waterways that brought European settlers in the seventeenth century and learning to the cosmopolitan planters of the eighteenth century. They carried tobacco and cotton to the metropolitan markets of Europe; they created the battle lines of the Civil War; and their rise and fall even today infuse the tempo of the state's economic and social life. And the water gives to much of eastern Virginia--the rural areas of the Northern Neck and the Eastern Shore--a sensual, timeless sweetness that is found in few other places on earth.

Land is the second foundation of Virginia's civilization--the dense, wet, fertile Virginia soil that proved so fatally well adapted to the growth of tobacco. As much as any other influence, tobacco has made Virginia what it is today. It was tobacco, with its promise of overnight wealth, that drew settlers to Virginia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was tobacco, with its peculiar need for intense hand cultivation, that led Virginia planters, desperate for cheap labor, to create the American system of slavery. It was tobacco, with the relentless demands it placed on the soil that grew it, that caused the agricultural collapse that nearly ruined the state in the early nineteenth century. It was tobacco that helped create the post-Civil War sharecropping system, and it is tobacco in the twentieth century that forms a troubling pillar of the state's economy. The current legal and political struggles over tobacco's future, though they may be fought in boardrooms, legislative chambers, and courtrooms, are simply one more expression of the central tension of Virginia history--a manifestation of the same historical forces that pushed the state into the frontlines of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the struggle over civil rights. A third constant in Virginia' s history is the role of public life. The House of Burgesses that met in 1619 was the beginning of representative government in the English colonies. Since then, Virginia society has placed a high--some would say inordinate--value on politics and government. As a result, Virginia has traditionally been a kind of political laboratory for the rest of the nation. The popular uprising of 1676, known to history as Bacon's Rebellion, was an early indication of the social tensions that would power the Revolution a century later; and Bacon's Rebellion, with its confused cries by those left out of the colonial aristocracy for representation, liberty, and greater freedom to exploit racial minorities (in this case the Indians), also foreshadowed with almost eerie precision the tangled history and eventual failure of most American populist movements.

The plantation society of the eighteenth century was the source of many basics of American liberal thought. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence; James Madison forged the radical notion of church-state separation and took the lead in writing the Constitution; George Washington led the new republic in war and peace. By 1832, when the hope and generosity of the revolutionary era were a distant memory, Virginia responded to Nat Turner's slave revolt by designing, and nearly adopting, a peaceful legal end to slavery. When that movement failed, Virginia thinkers like George Fitzhugh and Thomas Dew led the South in forging the grim proslavery argument, the rigid southern ideology of racism and states' rights that later inspired the secession movement. During the civil rights era, Virginia politicians and editors again took the lead in resistance; it was in Virginia that the arguments were first heard that southern states had the right to"nullify" the Supreme Court's school-desegregation rulings by interposing state authority between the citizen and the national government. These arguments were advanced, in the main, peacefully in Virginia; but farther south and west, they were potent weapons in the hands of less-scrupulous demagogues, and they played a major role in making the late 1950s and early 1960s a time of regional convulsion.

Virginia's political institutions today exist just across the river from the nation's capital. That proximity may be the most important single legacy left by the generation that founded the Republic. Being close to Washington has created northern Virginia, whose growth now forms the foundation of Virginia's wealth and dynamism. Being close to Washington, with its legions of ambitious activists and lawyers, has created a constant pressure on Virginia's legal and political system that has sparked a revival of the state's public creativity.

In fact, Virginia today is again a political laboratory for the South and for the nation. In the early 1980s, Virginia politicians and preachers such as Richard Viguerie, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson pioneered in direct-mail fund-raising, single-issue politics, and the use of satellite and cable-TV technology to build national constituencies through the potent mixing of religion and politics. And there are signs as well of a more hopeful creativity: In 1989, Virginia became the first state to elect a black man, L. Douglas Wilder, as its governor. In the midst of a grim decade of race-baiting at the highest national levels, the success of Wilder's campaign may foreshadow a time when racial diversity will be a positive force in American politics and when the old code words and covert appeals to racism will have lost their sting--a time, perhaps not too far off, when Virginia can lead the nation forward again.

The Virginia that greets travelers today--in all its wealth, self-assurance, and "un-Southern" bustle--is a direct outgrowth of those earlier Virginias. No state in the Union can repay a patient and enterprising tourist with as rich a lesson in the bright and dark sides of American history as Virginia can. Indeed, it is not too much to say that Virginia is worth any amount of time and travel that can be devoted to it, from a three-day holiday to a lifetime of research.

The tours recommended in this guidebook--to Jamestown and Williamsburg, where English settlers first lived in the New World; to Yorktown, where Washington's troops turned the old order upside down; to Monticello, where Jefferson dreamed of liberty in a stately mansion built by slaves; to Richmond, where Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee tried vainly to build a nation around the 11 peculiar institution"; to the Booker T. Washington birthplace in Franklin County, where visitors have a rare chance to see slavery through the eyes of slaves; to the grim battlefields near Fredericksburg, where one-quarter of those killed in the Civil War died; to Danville, where public officials in the 1960s tried to crush the civil rights movement using laws written for use against slave revolts; to the tidewater, where nuclear submarines sail over the graves of the Monitor and the Virginia; and to the mountains and valleys of southwestern Virginia, with their dusty coalfields, breathtaking bluegrass pastures, and rugged farmlands-all outline a rich, passionate history that is a beacon of hope, and a warning, to all those who care about this country.

A trip through Virginia--with our eyes open to all the magnificence and pain preserved in its buildings and landscape--reminds us of historian C. Vann Woodward's words: "The South has had its full share of illusions, fantasies, and pretensions, and it has continued to cling to some of them with an astonishing tenacity that defies explanation. But the illusion that 'history is something unpleasant that happens to other people' is certainly not one of them-not in the face of accumulated evidence and memory to the contrary."²

Virginia's history teaches us that our decisions matter. The ways one generation chooses to govern its economic, social, and environmental life can leave a lasting legacy, for good or ill. And it teaches further that a people can survive the shocks of history--riches and poverty, victory and defeat, glory and shame--without losing the things that make them, and their way of life, unique.


1. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in theAge ofPhilip II (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 2:775-776.

2. C. Vann Woodward, "The Irony of Southern History," in The Burden of Southern History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1960; reprint, New York: Mentor Press, 1969), 136.


Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion was first published in 1940 by Oxford University Press as a volume in the American Guide Series launched several years earlier by the New Deal's Federal Writers' Project. A team of publicly funded researchers and writers, working under the expert direction of Virginia Writers' Program supervisor Eudora Ramsay Richardson, spent three years digging in the collections of the Virginia State Library and visiting hundreds of communities across the state gathering material for the book. Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion quickly went into a second printing in 1941, and several subsequent printings followed after the end of World War II.

Although perspectives on the past have changed significantly in the years since the guide first appeared, it remains in great demand more than a half century later for the wealth of historical information it contains as well as for the insights it provides into life in mid-twentieth-century Virginia. The modern interstate highway system has superseded many of the routes recommended by the guide, yet the time-tested scenic byways still beckon adventurous and curious travelers. Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion offers both the avid voyager and the armchair tourist a nostalgic sojourn through a Virginia that in many ways no longer exists--yet, a Virginia whose enduring tradition and character continue to shape and inspire the future.

This reprint edition of the Virginia guide is essentially a photographic reproduction of the book as it appeared in its fourth printing in 1947, with the following minor exceptions. Ten pages of preliminary material, paginated with parenthetical roman numerals, have been added at the beginning of the book. The entire text of the 1947 printing, with its original title page and numbering, follows the new front matter. Eighty-seven of the original 101 photographs have been located in the files of the Picture Collection of the Virginia State Library and Archives and are reproduced here. Twelve of the fourteen missing illustrations have been photographed from the original volume. Virtually identical period photographs in the State Library's collection have been substituted in the remaining two cases--that of "Lower Brandon (18th Century), Prince George County" and of the "Aircraft Carrier on the Ways, Newport News." The illustration captions have been reset for this edition as they appeared in the original. The artwork printed on the front endpaper of the original guide, a "Key to Virginia Tours," has been reproduced here as the frontispiece. The foldout map of Virginia and Richmond, tucked in a special sleeve attached to the inside back cover of the original guide, has not been included in this reprint edition.

Many individuals contributed to the production of this volume. Jon Kukla, former director of the State Library's historical publishing program, conceived the project and commissioned the new foreword. Garrett Epps graciously agreed to contribute the foreword and has patiently awaited its appearance in print. Susan Bracy Sheppard, Sarah Shields Driggs, and Stacy Gibbons Moore, with the assistance of Carolyn S. Parsons and Petie Bogen-Garrett, did an outstanding job of identifying the original photographic images. Pierre Courtois and Mark Fagerburg expertly copied the aging photographs to ensure their preservation and reproduction quality. Emily J. Salmon copyedited and proofread the new material and ably guided the book through production. Special thanks go to Beverly J. Bagan and the members of the board of the Virginia Center for the Book for their enthusiastic support of and financial assistance to this project.

Sandra Gioia Treadway, Director
Division of Publications and Cultural Affairs