Traditions endure in Virginia. Through nearly 400 years of history, Virginians have honored, and sometimes been fixated by, traditions going back to the Revolution and before. For the last half-century, Virginia has been growing lustily, in the first years after World War II thanks mainly to government, in recent years thanks more to a vibrant private sector, but the first state in the nation to elect a black governor still hews to a course close to its roots. The first Virginia was a commonwealth ruled by a landed gentry that was, in the words of historian David Hackett Fischer, "elitist and libertarian." From the tobacco-growing counties emerged in the 1770s a group of leaders--George Washington, George Mason, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, James Madison--who in learning, wisdom and strength of character, equal any such group from any similarly sized polity since Periclean Athens or republican Rome. They were slaveholders who insisted on liberty, armed men living on the marches of civilization who insisted on the rule of law, believers in racial inequality who set forth principles of equality that would in time form the basis of a non-racist society. The Virginia they led into the American Revolution was not only the most populous and the richest of the 13 colonies, it also was the indispensable creator of the Republic and the Constitution that has held together the world's greatest democracy.
After the Revolutionary War, gentry control continued even as Virginia was eclipsed in population and wealth by Pennsylvania and New York and, its tobacco fields, all but exhausted, became a breeding ground for slavery. But Virginia had two more great heroes, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, both of whom reluctantly and brilliantly fought for their state rather than their country. The state's leadership class was impoverished and embittered by the Civil War, so much of which was fought on Virginia soil. Industrialization was haphazard: Railroads were constructed to ship cotton up from the South and coal east to the seaports; textile mills were built in Southside towns and tobacco factories in Richmond; the giant Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company was built by railroad magnate Collis Huntington. Politically, Virginia was ruled by a local gentry who worshipped their Revolutionary past and mourned their Lost Cause. They were pessimists, looking not for economic growth but for stability, bent on maintaining Virginia's segregation and content with its second-class economy. County courthouse organizations became the political machine of Harry Byrd, who ran Virginia politics from 1925, when he was elected governor, until 1965, when he retired from the Senate. In national politics, this machine lost battles more often than Lee lost on the battlefield, and less gallantly. For years the machine succeeded in keeping most vestiges of the welfare state and racial equality out of Virginia, to the point of closing public schools in the 1950s rather than obeying federal court desegregation orders.
This "massive resistance" collapsed in the late 1950s; Virginia's demographics changed and it went through a quarter-century of political flux. The government-employee filled northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. and the industrial Tidewater region around Norfolk and Newport News, plus the enfranchisement of blacks, provided a political base for liberal Democrats. But they were never quite a majority. In the 1970s, conservatives who left the Democratic Party and ran as independents or Republicans held them at bay. In the 1980s, three moderate Democrats were elected governor--Charles Robb in 1981, Gerald Baliles in 1985, Douglas Wilder in 1989--because they no longer represented an attempt to impose a labor-liberal agenda on an unwilling Virginia, and because they argued they could use government effectively to improve education and build Virginia's economy. Wilder's election was a national breakthrough, a successful attempt by a black politician to campaign and govern on equal terms. His fiscal conservatism, which resulted in sharp spending cuts in the early 1990s, like his elegant manners and thick Richmond accent, echoes Virginia's elitist and libertarian tradition; his insistence on the rule of law helped him win election as Richmond's mayor in 2004.
In the 1990s, Virginia developed ideological politics along party lines, and Republicans made historic strides by winning majorities with traditional party platforms. George Allen was elected governor by a wide margin in 1993 as a Republican who believed in lower taxes, traditional cultural values, longer prison terms, and teaching basic skills--he combined confrontational issue positions with a sunny temperament. In the 1997 contest for governor (Virginia is the last state which limits its governors to one term, another tradition that endures), Republican James Gilmore made his centerpiece issue the phasing out of the property tax on automobiles, and won a 56%-43% victory over Democrat Don Beyer. Republicans for the first time swept the top three statewide offices. In 1999 Gilmore led Republicans to legislative majorities in both chambers for the first time ever.
His successor was a Democrat, cell phone millionaire Mark Warner, who won in 2001 primarily due to an intensive 18-month campaign in rural Virginia--paying attention to the parts of the state not blessed by 1990s growth. This was not a victory for liberalism: Warner won 52%-47% and Democrat Timothy Kaine beat a very conservative Republican for lieutenant governor by 50%-48%, while Republican Jerry Kilgore was elected attorney general by 60%-40% and Republicans, helped by a partisan redistricting plan, swept to a 64-36 majority in the House of Delegates. In 2002 Warner cut state spending sharply; in 2004, he persuaded the Republican legislature to raise taxes by a record amount, yielding once again surpluses as the economic boom returned. In 2005 Virginia votes again for governor; the contenders are Kaine and Kilgore. The winner will preside in Thomas Jefferson's classic Capitol building, rewired for the Internet, in time to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the landing in Jamestown, and to celebrate that a state which was once rigidly segregated is now a multiethnic commonwealth.