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The Grandees of Government

The Origins and Persistence of Undemocratic Politics in Virginia

Brent Tarter

Publication Year: 2013

From the formation of the first institutions of representative government and the use of slavery in the seventeenth century through the American Revolution, the Civil War, the civil rights movement, and into the twenty-first century, Virginia’s history has been marked by obstacles to democratic change. In The Grandees of Government, Brent Tarter offers an extended commentary based in primary sources on how these undemocratic institutions and ideas arose, and how they were both perpetuated and challenged.

Although much literature on American republicanism focuses on the writings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, among others, Tarter reveals how their writings were in reality an expression of federalism, not of republican government. Within Virginia, Jefferson, Madison, and others such as John Taylor of Caroline and their contemporaries governed in ways that directly contradicted their statements about representative—and limited— government. Even the democratic rhetoric of the American Revolution worked surprisingly little immediate change in the political practices, institutions, and culture of Virginia. The counterrevolution of the 1880s culminated in the Constitution of 1902 that disfranchised the remainder of African Americans. Virginians who could vote reversed the democratic reforms embodied in the constitutions of 1851, 1864, and 1869, so that the antidemocratic Byrd organization could dominate Virginia’s public life for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

Offering a thorough reevaluation of the interrelationship between the words and actions of Virginia’s political leaders, The Grandees of Government provides an entirely new interpretation of Virginia’s political history.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-4


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pp. v-6

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pp. vii-ix

have lived in Virginia and studied aspects of its history and culture for more than forty years, for approximately one-tenth of its English-language history. During that time I have read all of the leading monographs and biographies of prominent people and discussed Virginia’s history with scores of researchers...

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pp. 1-8

En route to the new colony of Maryland in the summer of 1634, Thomas Yong stopped in Virginia to repair his storm-damaged ship. Before resuming his voyage he inquired about affairs in Maryland and learned that the government there was engaged in a dispute with William Claiborne...

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1. For the Glory of God and the Good of the Plantation

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pp. 9-32

The church and the storehouse in Jamestown were the most substantial buildings that the English settlers erected during their first years in Virginia. From the beginning they served both God and Mammon. On Friday, 30 July 1619, something new and important happened in the church. The governor...

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2. True Religion and a Civil Course of Life

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pp. 33-53

Protestant Christianity got off to an inauspicious start in Virginia. Late in life Captain John Smith set down a short recollection of how in 1607 “we beganne to preach the Gospell in Virginia.” He wrote, “wee did hang an awning (which is an old saile) to three or foure trees to shadow us from the Sunne...

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3. The Grievances of the People

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pp. 55-82

The first of the warships bearing the thousand or more soldiers that King Charles II sent to Virginia to suppress Bacon’s Rebellion and the three commissioners he sent to ascertain its causes arrived at the end of January 1677—January 1676 by the old calendar. By then the rebellion had collapsed, and...

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4. The Grandees of Government

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pp. 83-110

Richard Bland began an argument in a case before the General Court in the Capitol in Williamsburg one day in April 1772 by saying that “societies of men could not subsist unless there were a subordination of one to another, and that from the highest to the lowest degree. That this was conformable...

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5. All Men Are Not Created Equal

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pp. 111-136

When George Mason sat down in a room in Williamsburg during the third week of May 1776 to begin work on the first draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and when Thomas Jefferson sat down in a room in Philadelphia a few weeks later to begin work on the first draft of the Declaration of...

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6. On Domestic Slavery

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pp. 137-161

“Death or Liberty.” Enslaved Virginians planned to raise a flag with those words over the Capitol of Virginia in Richmond at the end of August 1800 when they began the war against slavery. During the trials of the men who planned to wage the war or to employ the threat of war to negotiate for the...

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7. Constitutions Construed

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pp. 163-193

Representative James Madison was engaged during the winter months of 1791–92 composing newspaper essays to explain the opposition that he and other members of Congress were mounting to the policies that Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed and that President George...

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8. House Divided

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pp. 195-228

The convention that met in Richmond from 14 February through 1 May 1861 is known in the literature of Virginia’s history as the Secession Convention because on 17 April the delegates voted 88 to 55 to secede from the United States,1 but for its first two months it was a Union convention....

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9. Causes Lost

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pp. 229-252

After the Confederate armies surrendered in the spring of 1865, a farmer near Winchester plowed up the bones or rotting remains of two Confederate soldiers. Another farmer working nearby did the same thing. What did those farmers then do? They went into town to speak to Mary Dunbar Williams...

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10. An Anglo -Saxon Electorate

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pp. 253-277

If Wood Bouldin went into Isaac Edmondson’s barbershop in the town of Halifax, also known as Halifax Court House and as Houston, between the summer of 1901 and the summer of 1902, it is intriguing to speculate about the conversation that they might have had. They were almost the same age...

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11. The Byrdocracy

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pp. 279-304

The earliest surviving text of a speech in the Papers of Harry Flood Byrd Sr. in the library of the University of Virginia is an undated typescript prepared during his first campaign for a seat in the Senate of Virginia in 1915. It bears revisions in his characteristic scrawl, and phrases from the speech and its key...

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12. I Was Born Black

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pp. 305-332

By the legal definition then in force in Virginia, Tucker was actually born “colored.” Three years, three months, and one day before he was born, the allwhite, all-male General Assembly of Virginia changed the legal definition of the word colored. Prior to that time, as Thomas Jefferson had explained in 1815...

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13. The Spirit of Virginia

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pp. 333-354

If the General Assembly at any time during the twentieth century had emulated the House of Representatives and created an Un-Virginian Activities Committee, the members would surely have turned their suspicious eyes toward southwestern Virginia. Ever since the Civil War the inhabitants of the...

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14. Public Good and Private Interest

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pp. 355-375

Marion G. Robertson made a speech to the Democratic Party state convention in Williamsburg on 11 June 1978 to urge the nomination of Conley Phillips, a Norfolk city councilman, for the United States Senate. After Phillips lost the nomination, Robertson promised that he and the thousands of...

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15. Virginia Abstractions

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pp. 377-395

Late in April 1861 the members of the Virginia convention that met in Richmond adopted a state flag. The delegates had just voted to sever the political connection between Virginia and the United States and taken the first steps toward creating a new political connection between Virginia and the Confederate...


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pp. 397-441


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pp. 443-453

E-ISBN-13: 9780813934327
E-ISBN-10: 081393432x
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813934310
Print-ISBN-10: 0813934311

Page Count: 464
Illustrations: 17 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Constitutional history -- Virginia.
  • Political culture -- Virginia -- History.
  • Virginia -- Politics and government -- 1865-1950.
  • Virginia -- Politics and government -- 1775-1865.
  • Virginia -- Politics and government -- To 1775.
  • African Americans -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- Virginia -- History.
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