To Be a Virginian

“To be a Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s side, is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a Benediction from Above.”
—Anonymous

Some call this “The Virginian’s Creed,” and though I’ve heard a couple of variations across the years, one sentiment remains consistent in every version–it’s pretty great to be a Virginian.

I can hear the ligaments popping as people from other states roll your eyes. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Great. Here comes another arrogant, condescending, lost-in-the-glorious-past boast about the Old Dominion.” You may feel something similar to the wave of nausea I experience when my friends from Texas talk about much bigger and better things are in their “Republic.”

Hear me out, though. Even though I’m a Virginian by birth, by marriage, and on my mother’s side, my appreciation for The Commonwealth doesn’t come at the expense of your state. You live in a pretty great place, too, I’m sure. I’m certainly not saying you don’t. Nor am I saying my home’s better. However, I will venture this–your state and our nation wouldn’t be what they are without Virginia.

As a matter of fact, today is a very good example of what I mean. One hundred fifty years ago today, on April 9, 1865, Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee met in the parlor of the McLean House in Appomattox, Virginia, to negotiate the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. Other Confederate armies held out a little longer, but the hostilities effectively ceased with what Bruce Catton called “A Stillness at Appomattox.” I can make a compelling case that the United States were reunited at Appomattox . . . in Virginia.

It’s only appropriate that the Civil War ended in the heart of Virginia, because The Commonwealth was the war’s center stage. In fact, without Virginia, it’s very likely that there never would have been a viable Confederacy or a war of any duration. Apart from Virginia, its leaders, and its resources, the Confederacy probably would have amounted to no more than a brief, quickly crushed rebellion. Again, I’ll cite Bruce Catton, who said that the fledgling Confederacy needed Virginia as surely as a human body needs air. Virginia was key, as it always had been.

As early as the 1580s Sir Walter Raleigh launched failed attempts to establish an English colony in the Americas. He is the one who named this land Virginia in honor of Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.” In 1607, the first permanent English settlement on this continent began on a small peninsula up against the north bank of Virginia’s James River. A dozen years later in 1619, a handful of representatives convened in the Jamestown church for the first gathering of the Virginia General Assembly. Three hundred ninety-six years later, the General Assembly is the oldest continuous legislative body in this hemisphere. The representative government that our nation so deeply cherishes was born . . . in Virginia.

So were some of the greatest proponents and practitioners of our representative government. In the 1770s, after a century and a half of colonial status, Virginia and its neighbors along the Atlantic seaboard began to resent taxation without representation. In a session of the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond’s St. John’s Church on March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry asked a timeless question and offered his own timeless answer: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

Weeks later on June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress appointed Virginia’s own George Washington to command the fledgling Continental Army. Over the next six years, he would heroically lead the amateur army’s fights against not only the often superior British and Loyalist forces, but also against constantly expiring enlistments, stingy state legislatures, and persistent lack of food and supplies.

Just over one year later in the summer of 1776, another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, penned some famous words of his own: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” With the signing of the Declaration of Independence he drafted, our independent nation began to come into being.

As Virginians fought under Washington on the battlefields of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, their neighbors from the southwestern part of the state headed into the war’s southern theater. Along with their western neighbors, these Overmountain Men from my corner of Virginia defeated Loyalists under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780. Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, called this victory the “turn of the tide of success” in the colonies’ war for independence.

Almost exactly one year after this turning point, Lord Cornwallis found himself and his army trapped at Yorktown. Before him lay the combined Continental and French armies under Washington and Rochambeau. Behind him, the French fleet filled the waters of the York River and the Chesapeake Bay. With no escape, he surrendered on October 19, 1781. The Revolutionary War effectively ended, and our independence was secured . . . in Virginia.

Throughout the 1700s, the colonies and states were expanding to the west, and Virginia’s roads were crucial to this expansion. Many immigrants to this land–perhaps most notably the Scots-Irish from Ulster–arrived in Philadelphia, migrated west through Pennsylvania, and eventually traveled south into and through Virginia’s Great Valley. The Valley Road along which these pioneers traveled is roughly preserved and/or paralleled by today’s U.S. Highway 11 and Interstate 81. There’s a good chance that some branch of your family tree includes a stop or two along the Valley Road.

Clearly, it’s true that western expansion didn’t end in southwest Virginia, but it just may be true that major western expansion into Kentucky and beyond began in southwest Virginia. Remember Daniel Boone? He was a Virginian for a significant part of his life. After living in Culpeper for a while in the 1760s, Boone returned to Virginia in 1775 to carve out the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. This road winds through southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee before passing through the Cumberland Gap into what is now Kentucky. During those early days, however, the Kentucky settlements were considered western counties of Virginia, and Daniel Boone represented them in the Virginia General Assembly for three terms.

Meanwhile, back in the east, leaders like George Washington and James Madison recognized the need for a more robust federal government than the one created by the Articles of Confederation adopted by the states at the Revolution’s end. So, in the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia and promptly elected George Washington to preside. Through the preceding year, James Madison sat in the second floor library of his home at Montpelier, writing a draft that would come to be known as the Virginia Plan for a federal government. The convention edited, amended, and revised the Virginia Plan into what we now know as the Constitution of the United States of America. It was eventually ratified with a Bill of Rights, modeled on George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Four of the new nation’s first five Presidents were Virginians: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Over the years, four other Virginians–William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson–would hold the nation’s highest office. Thus, Virginia claims she is the “Mother of Presidents.”

So many Virginians were crucial contributors to our nation’s early history. When my Texas friends make me nauseous, I remind them that Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston were both Virginians.

For all these reasons and because of all these people, Virginia was key in the Civil War. When Virginia seceded, war was inevitable, and it hit Virginia hard. There were nearly as many battles in Virginia as in all the other states combined. The capital of the Confederacy was here in Richmond. Many of the key generals, like Lee, Johnston, Jackson, Stuart, and Hill were Virginians. The primary industrial and rail infrastructure was in Virginia. So, it was almost inevitable that the Civil War ended . . . in Virginia.

And so it did, one hundred fifty years ago today in Wilmer McLean’s parlor in Appomattox, just over one hundred miles up the James River from Jamestown. So many crucial moments, events, and personalities of our story share this setting.

Our society took root at Jamestown . . . in Virginia.
Our representative government took shape . . . in Virginia.
The founding documents of our national identity took form in the minds of Jefferson, Madison, and Mason . . . in Virginia.
Our independence was secured in at Yorktown . . . in Virginia.
Our nation’s immigrants traveled the Valley and Wilderness Roads . . . in Virginia.
Our union was restored at Appomattox . . . in Virginia.

It’s not just history. It’s my story. It’s your story. It’s our story, and it’s here in Virginia.

So, when I say how proud and happy I am “To Be a Virginian,” you know what I’m saying, right? Because regardless of your current address, if you’re a proud citizen of the United States of America, you have roots in Virginia . . .

. . . maybe on your mother’s side.

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