The Grandees of Government

Sep 24, 2013

While it is known as the home of freedom-loving Founding Fathers, Virginia has also had a history of undemocratic institutions and tendencies.  That was the controversial topic of a book launch and discussion hosted by the Library of Virginia.

Author and historian Brent Tarter discovered primary sources with those ideas throughout the 400 years of the Commonwealth’s history.

Tarter found that from the start, state leaders embraced a hierarchical society and political institutions that excluded people—hence, the book’s title.

“I call it ‘The Grandees of Government.’ That’s an 18th-century phrase used to refer to one of the most powerful of the members of the House of Burgesses in the 1750s.  During the first two centuries of Virginia’s history, the government was of the tobacco planters, by the tobacco planters, and for the tobacco planters," said Tarter.

Post-Civil War, African-Americans exercised the rights to vote and govern, which were stripped away by the 1902 Constitution. Tarter calls that “serious backsliding” that erased democratic gains.

“That set the stage for an extremely small group of political leaders in the Democratic party to dominate politics and government for decades.  In fact, they dominated government in Virginia from the mid-1880s to the mid-1960s.  They left out the black people, they left out the women, and maintained a political economy that favored the same sorts of people for generations.”

Tarter says the General Assembly’s traditional dominance continues with its strict Dillon Rule power over localities. The book is published by UVA Press.