The Spirit of Virginia


THE best symbolic approach to Virginia is a southward journey from the bridge that joins the Lincoln Memorial with Arlington. When the traveler turns his back on Washington and sees before him the portico of General Lee's mansion, the wheels of the motorcar may turn as rapidly as before, but life itself has a different tempo. It is neither the nervous accelerando of the East nor the common time of the Deep South. Life is more leisured without being essentially indolent. Human relations are somewhat more intimate. Tempered by the reserve of a certain personal dignity, friendliness prevails. Everywhere the dark laughter of the Negro is to be heard. Old houses outnumber modern, but the exclamation points of new factory stacks punctuate a landscape familiar to three centuries of white residents. From north to south, along the coastal plain, the scenery and the people change scarcely at all.

It is among these people, or some of them, that traditional Virginia life is to be observed. In the cultured circles of the larger eastern cities of the Commonwealth, there is a curious commingling of yesterday and today. New York is the objective of the natives' most frequent journeying, and to Europe they go of ten; but they always will stop chattering about a new play on Broadway to listen to a Negro story, and the elders seldom talk fifteen minutes without some reference to the War between the States. There is a deliberate cult of the past along with typically American business activity. All eastern Virginians are Shintoists under the skin. Genealogy makes history personal to them in terms of family. Kinship to the eighth degree usually is recognized. There are classes within castes. Alumni of the various colleges have different affiliations. A pleasant society it is, one that does not adventure rashly into new acquaintanceship but welcomes with a certain stateliness of manner those who come with letters from friends. If conversation rarely is brilliant, it is friendly and humorous and delightsome to the alien except when it passes to genealogical abstrusities.

The rural life of Tidewater is more clearly divided in economic status. A few families have contrived for 200 years to hold to baronial estates, though sometimes by making themselves the slaves of their houses and their gardens. More often, Virginians who have grown rich in the North, or Virginia women who have married men of fortune, come back in a desire to reestablish the old plantation life. Some of them succeed in making the river estates more beautiful than in the eighteenth century, but the difference between the fine appearance of these properties and the dilapidation of smaller holdings near by is the difference between income spent on the farm and money derived from farming. There probably is not a single great plantation in eastern Virginia that can be called selfsustaining otherwise than by sentimental, rather than actuarial bookkeeping.

If the traveler who comes from the North to Richmond or to Norfolk will turn westward, he will find after 150 miles of travel that the scenery and the people change with every hour's driving. Orange County and the border of Albemarle seem the home of Richmonders who have craved a sight of the mountains; the Warrenton and Middleburg districts are suburbs of Washington or are the hunting grounds of New Yorkers. Around Charlottesville is a society sui generis, with an English flavor somewhat less pronounced today than it was a generation ago.

Once the Blue Ridge is passed and the exquisite Shenandoah Valley is reached, the motorist is among people who take religion and farming more seriously. Many of these Valley folk came into Virginia from Pennsylvania, and adhere to creeds that were Quaker in origin. Other residents of the Valley, particularly between Staunton and Lexington, are of stout ScotchIrish stock and have the unflagging belief of their race in education and in hard work. To the southwestward, one may go into counties where cattle raising overtops agriculture. The Negro population of those counties never was large. Politics, for that reason, have not been swayed by race questions. Northward from Staunton, down the Valley, one comes to the great applegrowing country. There the admixture of stock is most interesting: the descendants of ScotchIrish and the Pennsylvania Germans live side by side with families that went to the Valley from the Alexandria district and northern Tidewater before the American Revolution.

Along the crest and among the coves of the Blue Ridge, and in the Alleghenies that guard the Valley on its westward side, live the mountaineers proper. That some of them ever wrest a living from their steep and narrow fields even a student familiar with squalor would find it difficult to believe; but they hold tenaciously to their small farms and they send surplus sons to the mines or to the nearby new industries, the establishment of which is perhaps the most thrilling chapter in the recent economic history of Virginia.

Among 2,500,000 people of habitat so diversified, what common inheritance is there to justify the assertion that there is a distinctive spirit of Virginia? The answer is a definition, perhaps the only definition, of that spirit. By hundreds of thousands, Virginians have gone into other States, but those who have remained in the Old Dominion are of the same stock and have no deep admixture of recent foreign blood. In Richmond, for example, the percentage of foreign born was only two and threetenths in 1930's, as against thirteen in 1860. No large cities serve as electromagnets for a melting pot. The presence of the Negro has kept out the foreigner who in other States competes with the native manual laborer to get his start in America.

The experience of an immense, common tragedy has strengthened the homogeneity of the population. In Virginia, strangers often are amazed to find how near seems the War between the States. The reason is that the conflict reached every family, brought all of them together in defense, left most of them impoverished, and then produced during reconstruction a type of government that made political unity a racial necessity. Prior to 1860, Virginia was divided not unevenly between Whigs and Democrats. After the war, disfranchisement and the carpetbaggers' venal misguidance of the freedmen made men Democrats because they were white and had been Confederates.

Virginia's emergence from reconstruction and her progress in recovery placed her for a generation and a half under the direction of men who had confident faith that nothing which could happen to them was as bad as that which they had survived. Courage, patience, and cheer, as exemplified by the Confederate veterans, left so deep a mark that even in the blackest days of the great depression of 192936, there was far less of anxious concern in Virginia than in most American States.

Likewise to the war and to the reconstruction are to be traced the respect for leadership that is one of the characteristics of the spirit of Virginia. The Virginians of the '60's were unrelenting individualists, reared on their own land, but they learned from Lee and from Jackson how discipline could offset odds. Thanks to the wise planning of Alexander H. H. Stuart and others, these men saw their State readmitted to the Union within less than six years after Appomattox. It was a lesson they did not soon forget. Even poor leadership long was better than the lack of any.

Folkways and religion have contributed in the same manner to the persistence of a distinctive Virginia spirit. Although the movement from farm to town has torn thousands of Virginia families from the soil, there has been a continuity of life among people of similar tradition and of Protestant faith. If courtesy and neighborliness are more general than in many parts of the Union, it is because courtesy is due old friends. In their migrations, Virginians have carried with them the Lares et Penates of ancestral altars. Had the altars not been old, the household gods would not have been so cherished.

Much of the spirit represented by these political and historical influences should persist and doubtless will. That is the hope of those who share a common pride in Virginia at the same time that they refuse to shut their eyes to the shadows of a pleasant picture. There is, in Virginia, too high a birth rate among those least able, economically or intellectually, to rear stalwart children. The backwardness described in the essay on education in this informative volume is not overpainted in its indigoes and black. Negroes gradually have been forced from the skilled trades, despite all that has been done for their training at Hampton and at such smaller schools as St.Paul's at Lawrenceville. The choice of the Negro now lies between the extremes of overcrowded profession and underpaid common labor or domestic service. No middle class is being developed.

Many rural communities are depressed. Virginia farmers by tens of thousands still seek pathetically to eke a living from eroded or starved land. Much of the industrial development of the State requires only the semiskilled worker whose wage is adequate if he is unmarried but is insufficient for the support of a family.

The course of the sun will lighten some of these dark colors. Industrially, Virginia will continue to progress. Those manufactories that are not maintained by great corporations simply to prepare materials for finish or fabrication in the North gradually will be forced by competition to improve the quality of their product and, in so doing, to demand skilled labor at higher wages than ever will be paid semiskilled operatives. This is reasonably certain. Virginia's opportunity lies in the preliminary vocational training of workers who can advance along with industry. In agriculture, which will remain the largest vocation in Virginia for at least another generation, progress depends on leadership and on adequate governmental support. For the advance of Virginia, Blacksburg is the key position. Industrialists from the North of ten say that the honesty and the economy of government in Virginia are among the considerations that bring them to Virginia; but honesty is a virtue that ought to be inherent, and economy is a mockery and a misnomer when it is attained by neglect of public health or at the expense of children's education.

If industry prospers and yields a larger taxrevenue, Virginia can hope to improve steadily her educational system in all its parts from the rural Negro school, which remains a deep disgrace, to the institutions of higher learning. Virginia seems aware of this: the average of citizenship will never be better or worse than the standards of the primary and secondary schools, but leadership increasingly will depend on the colleges, the universities, and the professional institutions. It will be a mistake to diffuse the limited funds Virginia can devote to higher education, and equally will it be a mistake to undertake too wide postgraduate and professional study at an early date. Prudently, and as fast as she may, Virginia must offer this training within her borders. She has suffered much already from the loss of those superior young men and women who go North for advanced instruction, and never return. Virginia's heaviest loss is through the export of brains. In the attainment of her larger industrial future, Virginia will perceive, also, that shortsighted persistence in the underpayment of Negro workers has driven away and will continue to deprive her of thousands of willing hands and strong bodies.

Politically, the ominous conditions in Virginia are the gradual atrophy of local selfgovernment, the failure of welleducated, unselfish men and women to participate actively in the public service, and the abstention of tens of thousands from the exercise of the franchise. It is difficult to say which of these three is potentially the most serious. Local boards of supervisors and city councils long were training schools for public service. Membership, if unsolicited, was regarded as a duty. It no longer is so. Among Virginians of means and education, the balance between activity and complacency too often is tipped on the wrong side. The civic conscience is stronger than the political. Recruits for community service never are lacking, but for men who unselfishly will assume public office, the drums are beaten in vain. Politics no longer are the avocation of the gentleman as in 176589. That avocation must be revived. Virginia's future never will be secure until there is larger participation by intelligent voters in elections and in public office.

Perhaps it is indicative of the changing spirit of Virginia, that this introduction to The Virginia Guide should include as much of confession as of eulogium, and more concerning present needs than past glories. This should not be taken to mean that Virginia is losing either her pride or her faith. Rather should these paragraphs be read as evidence that Virginia is looking forward in a consciousness of her responsibility to justify her past. Her sons and her daughters are not content to say,'We have Abraham for a Father.'