- Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776–1840
In the early years of the American republic, Virginia regularly excited the jealousy and frustrations of leaders of other states. Virginians were [End Page 151] so proud and so dominant in national politics that a veritable Virginia dynasty arose. Kevin R. C. Gutzman does not seek to explain the emergence of this dynasty, nor why other Americans held such opinions about the Commonwealth, but rather to get at the roots of Virginians’ political and ideological identity: why Virginians were the way they were.
To accomplish this goal, Gutzman insists that we must take Virginia in isolation from the other revolutionary states. Early Americans’ attachment to their particular state—distinct from the larger union—was much greater, Gutzman notes, than we can imagine today. Thus it is not only useful but necessary to understand the history of the early republic from a particularist point of view; one must see developments as the people of the separate states saw them, through the lens of their own history and experience. Gutzman does not offer a full history of the times, but focuses attention on certain defining moments in which Virginia’s political values were on display.
From the colonial era on, Virginians took special pride as the king’s “Old Dominion,” and Gutzman begins his narrative with an examination of the essential Britishness of the Virginians, which, in constitutional and political discourse, centered on matters of rights and created a revolution that was simultaneously conservative in character and radical in implications. More than anything else, it was this absolute commitment of Virginia’s elite to securing their rights that brought revolution to the colony and supplied the vindication of their radical actions in breaking allegiance with George III. It was their deeply held conservative commitment to individual rights too that was integral to the project of drafting the first state constitution, which rested on a formal Declaration of Rights.
One of the strengths of Gutzman’s work is the new light he sheds on familiar characters by setting them in the context of the internal political dynamics of the state. Thus we encounter James Madison contemplating how to best his personal rival, Patrick Henry. In the House of Delegates, Henry’s mastery seemed complete as he successfully blocked reforms that Madison craved for Virginia, so Madison gravitated toward the idea of strengthening the central government to counter Henry’s influence. The standard depiction of the 1780s as a period of crisis and upheaval demanding resolution in the Constitution of 1787 appears simply incorrect—or at best incomplete—in Gutzman’s reorientation of the narrative from the state perspective. The Henry–Madison struggle carried on into the ratification debates where Henry’s sway was such that Madison’s pro-ratification forces were compelled to assume a position all but guaranteeing [End Page 152] (the ratification document stopped short of a conditional ratification) protections of state sovereignty and of individual rights with a bill of rights. Yet perhaps this was where they had always stood.
Throughout the 1790s, Virginians perceived that the Federalist Party was intent on the perpetual expansion of the central government’s powers at the expense of the states. The Hamiltonian scheme of consolidation was a destructive and corrupting force that Virginia was obligated to resist. John Taylor of Caroline emerged as the spokesman for this republican viewpoint, which culminated in the Kentucky–Virginia resolutions. Gutzman does not see the “Doctrines of ’98” as a move of desperation in the face of the Federalist “age of witches,” but as a reiteration of long-held Virginia positions. Leaders of the Commonwealth persistently maintained that their sovereignty remain intact in all matters not “expressly” (the key word) delegated to the central government.
The election of Thomas Jefferson swept the consolidationists from power, but Virginia particularists soon bemoaned a lost opportunity. The Revolution of 1800 stopped short of codifying the strict construction doctrine. Gutzman notes that this failure to capitalize on...