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Soon after the Second Wheeling Convention convened to organize a pro-Union Virginia government in 1861, the issue of Virginia’s antebellum debt and the Civil War’s effect upon it surfaced. As the summer and the first battles of the war passed, the issue pressed. “How is it to be settled?” Delegate Fountain Smith asked. “That, Sir, is to be left for yourself and other eminent gentlemen who will be in the future legislative assemblies to determine,” [End Page 78] Delegate John S. Carlile replied to a chorus of laughter. “It will be time enough to consider when the time for considering it arrives” (Lewis, How West Virginia Was Made, 121 and 246).
The laughter soon faded as the issue of paying Virginia’s bondholders for the debt lingered for over half a century and festered in the politics and economies of both Virginia and West Virginia. Whether Carlile intended his remarks to defer the issue, as a prophecy, or as a curse, they proved accurate. Days of legislative debate and court deliberations and page after page of historical interpretation were devoted to the Virginia debt controversy. Brent Tarter, best known for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, has produced the latest work on the subject. In A Saga of the New South: Race, Law and Public Debt in Virginia, Tarter pays tribute in an admirable bibliographic essay to the works on the debt that came before his. He also explicitly maps out the history of Virginia’s internal struggle with the debt apart from the controversy with West Virginia over shares of the debt. Yet, the strength of Tarter’s own book is not its contribution of another treatment of the debt controversy—as thorough as it is. It is its coverage of Virginia’s political history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from a different perspective. While Tarter covers the state’s transitional political events, he places those events in the context of the debt that hung over Virginia’s government and economy during the period. The politics of race, reconstruction, redemption, and the New South movement are present in the book, but Tarter shows that those issues—common to the states of the South—cannot be explored from state to state from a one-size-fits-all approach. History affected each southern state differently and for different reasons. In the case of Virginia, its antebellum debt became the dye that colored all of its historical threads.
In laying out his history, Tarter, with an emphasis upon Virginia’s investment in railroad projects, traces the origins of the debt in antebellum times. Railroads held the promise of bringing Virginia into modern economic play. While he explains this, Tarter at the same time misses the chance to point out that the emphasis upon railroading contradicted the idea that Virginia’s economy was stereotypically plantation based. And the writer’s mention that Virginia stood behind only New York and Pennsylvania in antebellum debt loses some of its impact without discussion of the significance of this debt in light of the general fiscal conservatism of slaveholding states.
In the same chapter in which he discusses the origin of the debt, Tarter writes about the origins of the debt crisis in the secession of Virginia, proclamation of a pro-Union state government in Wheeling, and the eventual separation of West Virginia from Virginia. Without the economic disruption and damage caused by the Civil War and the removal of the western counties from the state, Virginia would have faced no likely problem in repaying the debt. [End Page 79] The significance of these events begs a separate chapter with deeper treatments of the origins of both the debt and the debt crisis. However, Tarter covers these topics sufficiently if the book is a history of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Virginia in the context of the debt and not merely a history of the debt crisis.
Tarter’s history proceeds with an examination of the early struggles...