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The party’s rise was swift. By 1979, the Readjusters had a majority

in the General Assembly; by 1881, it held the General Assembly and the

governorship, and appointed Mahone to the United States Senate. And

the Readjusters represent one of the few political groups in America to

keep its campaign promises. One of the first things the party did was

to rid the state of the whipping post, a corporal criminal punishment

reserved specifically for blacks. The Readjusters also immediately

got rid of the poll tax in Virginia, as it was onerous to much of its

party base. The state negotiated with its creditors and lowered the

debt service by half. This allowed the Commonwealth to cut property

taxes by 20%. With the savings from reduced interest payments, the

Readjusters increased funding for education—for both blacks and

whites, at all levels. The Readjusters listened to their black constituents

and created and funded the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute

(now Virginia State University), the first state-funded black institute

of higher education in the nation, as well as creating more teachers’

colleges for women.With the creation of theVNCI, the state hired John

Mercer Langston, a Virginia native who helped establish Howard Law

School as its first president. Langston would later win election to the

U.S. House of Representatives, the first and only black congressman

fromVirginia until the election of Robert Scott in 1993.

The Readjuster coalition lasted less than a decade, destroyed

by racism and the fear of black political and social equality, stoked

by the then out-of-power Democrats. A one-page political diatribe,

known as the “Danville Circular,” precipitated a white backlash which

destroyed the coalition. Blacks and poor whites found themselves

forsaken by the reawakened Democratic Party. They would remain

so until the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of

1964 and ’65. And the state would continue pay-as-you-go until the

ascendency—and sanity—of Mills Godwin. Still, for a decade,

Virginia experienced a political and economic renaissance, as well as

something of a golden age of improved race relations. It would not be

glimpsed again until 2008.

James D. Watkinson is a native Virginian who earned his Ph.D. at the

University of Virginia. He teaches social, cultural and intellectual

history at VCU.

Republicans can increase their share of the suburban voters who

decide statewide elections.

The next Republican candidate for governor, in particular, would

be wise to concentrate on Hampton Roads, where Clinton did not

do as well as Obama did four years ago. Although she won Prince

William County, that northern Virginia jurisdiction was another

place where Clinton under-performed compared to Obama. Strength

in these areas, together with revived strength for Republicans in

vote-rich Chesterfield, can lead to a Republican victory in Virginia

next time.

One vital advantage for the Republicans in 2017 is the fact that

a gubernatorial election year turnout in Virginia falls considerably

short of a presidential year turnout, and the voters most likely to

skip the ballot box next year are from groups most likely to vote for

Democrats: younger voters, African-Americans and Latinos.

But the biggest unknown for 2017—and the factor that may

make all these demographic and ideological concerns moot—is what

shape the Donald Trump presidency will take. Virginia’s gubernatorial

elections are nationalized affairs, as partisans on both sides look to our

When Virginia

was first blue…

By Jim Watkinson

Before the Civil War, the state invested

heavily in infrastructure, often borrowing

to build the bridges, canals, and rail that

it needed to compete in the national

economy. After the devastation of the war,

though the infrastructure had in large part

been destroyed, the debt remained—with

accrued interest. The war also destroyed

much of Virginia’s private wealth, making the pre-war debt even

more onerous. In 1865, the Commonwealth was $34,000,000 in debt,

or approximately $61,500,000,000.00 in today’s dollars. (Perhaps

leading to the 20th-century Democrat mantra, “Pay as you go.”)

The Democrats who regained control of the state in 1870 vowed

to repay the debt in full and on time, no matter that West Virginia had

been created during the war and, many thought, should bear some of the

responsibility. Virginia’s ruling class’s honor was at stake, as well as the

credit rating of the Commonwealth. However, their policies to do so were

painfully injurious to many of the state’s residents. To try to retire the debt

in good time, the Funders, as the Democrats became known, decided to

cut funding to the newly created public school system, and to raise taxes

(horrors!) on land. Thus, in one fell swoop, the Democrats angered whites

in the western part of the state and the Southside, especially middling

farmers, who owned most of the land, as well as blacks in the east who

counted on the public schools to raise their economic status. The two

groups coalesced into a new political party: the Readjusters.

An unlikely individual came to help create and guide the

Readjusters: ex-Confederate General William Mahone. Before the

war, and after, Mahone was a railroad executive, having been trained

to the task at VMI. However, he was ruined by the Panic of 1873 that

gripped the country. He ran for governor in 1877 and lost. In 1879,

as a forward looking individual, as well as one who understood that

Virginia needed investment and to adapt Northern ways of finance

and industry, Mahone broke with the conservative, Democratic party

and formed the Readjusters. The Readjusters promised to alleviate the

debt and lower taxes, while at the same time providing better funding

for education. With the coalition of white landowners in the western

part of the state and blacks in the eastern crescent who had been

harmed by Democratic policies, Mahone had a new political base and

movement, one which would not be seen again until the 2008 election

of Barack Obama.

odd-year elections as a key early barometer for a new president. More

often than not the party controlling theWhite House fares poorly in the

Old Dominion’s contest for governor a year later.

But Trump’s eclectic policy mix, including infrastructure

spending plans to please Democrats and tax cut proposals to please

Republicans, suggests few clues as to what he will do as president,

much less how well he will do. Some quick policy victories may

help the GOP with swing voters, while a problematic early start

may embolden angry Democrats. A key potential risk for the new

president is whether congressional Republicans will push for major

adjustments to Social Security and Medicare, programs candidate

Trump said he would not cut.

The close 2016 presidential election in Virginia, even with

Senator Tim Kaine on the Democratic ticket, demonstrates that the

Old Dominion’s electorate remains persuadable by either party.

Stephen J. Farnsworth is professor of political science at the

University of Mary Washington, where he directs the Center for

Leadership and Media Studies. Stephen Hanna is professor of

geography at University of Mary Washington.

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Possible Republican Renaissance?

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