It took 114 years, but by 2000, Virginia had become a Republican state. What brought about such a great change in the Old Dominion? Let’s take a look back.

Reconstruction was the low point of Virginia history. In 1865, a defeated and gutted state lost not only its cities, towns, farms, and one third of its territory (when West Virginia was cut off in 1863), but even its name. Virginia became Military District Number One. Collapse, humiliation, bankruptcy, revolution—all are proper words when describing Reconstruction Virginia.

How could this happen in the Mother of States and Presidents—the acknowledged leader of a nation, which had produced the author of the Declaration of Independence, the leader of the successful Revolutionary Army, major voices in the Constitutional Convention, and four of our first five presidents?

Virginians were marooned in what Lewis Mumford has called The Brown Decades. There were browns everywhere: mediocre drabs, scorched brown earth, sober autumnal colors. Brown became the color of renounced ambition and defeated hopes. General Lee retreated to a tiny village (Lexington) to become president of a barely functioning Washington College. Matthew Fontaine Maury, “Pathfinder of the Seas,” wanted to set up a Confederacy-in-exile south of the border; indeed, a number of Virginians moved to Mexico. Others favored guerrilla war, joining the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan. Albert Taylor Bledsoe, classmate of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis at West Point, founded the Southern Review. He warned his beloved homeland that it was in danger of being destroyed by Northern carpetbaggers and greed. He died in Alexandria, Virginia, exhausted by ten years of controversy. But Bledsoe’s warnings would be repeated by a number of Southern intellectuals and philosophers whose 1930 volume, I’ll Take My Stand, remains a classic.

Virginia’s protests went unheeded. Henry H. Wells, carpetbagger and confiscationist from New York, was appointed governor of what had been Virginia. In 1867, a constitutional convention held in Richmond would have disenfranchised 95 percent of the whites and disqualified them from holding office.

Adopting this constitution seemed unthinkable to most white Virginians; rejecting it, however might have brought even worse consequences. Perhaps, they hoped, they could get some clauses repealed in return for peaceful acceptance. That is exactly what happened. President Grant allowed a separate vote on the constitution, the test oath, and white disenfranchisement. On this compromise basis, the constitution passed by a vote of 210,585 to 9,136. The test oath and disenfranchisement clause were rejected, the constitution passed, and Virginia was taken back into the Union on January 26, 1870. But there were still dark days ahead.

The problems seemed insurmountable. The state debt soared toward $50 million, and there was no money to pay it. In marched the occupation troops and the carpetbaggers. Billy Mahone, a former Confederate general, masterminded a Readjuster-Republican Parry, rallied native blacks, Greenbackers, Know Nothings, and Readjuster Democrats to his side, won a seat in the U.S. Senate, broke a tie by voting with the Republicans, swept the 1881 election when the Yankee troops left, and got Virginia’s debt reduced to about $23 million. But his victory was short-lived.

By removing Democrats from offices and filling them with his new allies (including blacks), Mahone sparked a counterrevolution. An inflammatory speech against whites by Republican William Simms in Danville caused a riot in which both whites and blacks were killed. Now the Democrats had a winning issue: Whites must regain political control. Race became the central issue in the 1885 election. When the votes were finally counted, the Democrats had 145,000 to 127,000 for the Readjuster-Republicans. Democrats took over the state government and obtained federal backing and patronage, which they would hold until the end of the 20th century.

On December 8,1893, the Democrats nominated Thomas Martin for the U.S. Senate, and he defeated Gen. Fitzhugh Lee in the election. Confederates were enraged. A man hardly known beyond the sound of his mother’s cowbells had beaten a Lee. Martin stayed in the Senate 24 years. Beholden to corporations and railroads. Democrats squelched the Republicans and turned back the Populists. Martin’s use of jobs, patronage, and an uncanny ability to influence voters made him the state’s political czar until his death in 1919.

In the new century, the state’s two chief spokesmen were Senators Carter Glass (1858-1946) and Harry Flood Byrd (1887-1966). The tone was set by the state constitution of 1902, whose stringent poll tax quickly shrank the number of qualified black voters from 147,000 to 21,000. Even those who could pay the tax had to pass the “intelligence test”—which gave the power of rejection to the test-giver. Most poor people (white and black) could not vote in a state that once led the revolt for liberty.

It was the Age of the Pinched Penny: No state department of health existed until 1908, when a miserly $40,000 was earmarked to fund it. For years, there was no state sanitarium for the state’s fourth worst killer, tuberculosis. Finally, one was opened in Catawba—with a 30-bed capacity. By 1936, 40 percent of Virginians were living off an average annual income of $183. In the half-century before the Great Depression, Virginia’s natural increase in population—the excess of births over deaths—fell by more than a third.

For most of the 20th century, the real power was in the hands of Governor (then Senator) Harry Byrd. His Democratic machine, known as the “Organization,” ran the state and defied the federal government.

Byrd—with one of Virginia’s finest aristocratic names, going back to William Byrd of Westover—and his tightfisted, pay-as-you-go philosophy made sense during the Great Depression. In a state almost destroyed by debt after Reconstruction, he solved the debt problem with a simple philosophy: Don’t spend. Then came the World War II boom, which poured money into Virginia (especially the naval base at Norfolk) and provided opportunities not even dreamed of a few years earlier. The “Organization” moved into the postwar years firmly in control—until an event that would change Virginia forever.

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional and that segregation must end. Byrd fought back. With Virginia Governor Stanley, he mandated “massive resistance,” defied the Supreme Court, and shut down many public schools (including those in Norfolk and Charlottesville). Some remained closed for years. But time and public sentiment were against Byrd. He had signed his own death warrant.

Not only were the schools reopened, but the opposing Republicans started winning gubernatorial elections—in 1969, 1973, and 1977. Even more momentously, in January 1990, Douglas Wilder, a black man, became the governor of Virginia, 371 years after the first blacks arrived at Jamestown in 1619.

The real end of the old Democratic regime came ten years later, when the Republicans took over the governor’s mansion and legislature. Gov. James Gilmore promised liberal policies on race, education, child welfare, and public services, which would have been unthinkable when the Byrd Democrats held sway. Northern Virginia was powering the greatest boom in the state’s history. Half the internet messages of the nation were originating in Virginia, and thousands of high-paying jobs were yet to be filled. The new day was at hand.

But if many old problems had been solved—or at least mitigated—others would soon appear. The new power base—a triangle linking Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Norfolk—left much of Virginia far behind. Devastation in the tobacco market left Southside Virginia in a new depression, and problems with coal did the same to Southwest Virginia.

Anyone traveling around the Old Dominion can see the proof. Whole sections of rural Virginia are becoming junkyards, full of abandoned cars, fast-food litter, and permanently parked trailers. Outside every city, a crazy quilt of pell-mell development and erosion strips the land of great natural beauty. In his inaugural address, Governor Gilmore promised to put history and beauty at the top of his list. Is it too late? What can he do?

The specter of development is marching like Grant’s troops on Richmond. Most Virginians are not fighting to preserve their unique heritage and beauty. They are looking forward to being Silicon Valley Fast, and McDonaldizing every nook and cranny. Virginia is on the verge of becoming Anywhere and Everywhere, U.S.A.

“The earth belongs to the living,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, who also believed that the family farm was the backbone of American democracy. Today, the earth belongs to the corporate giants, who merge and mangle anything and everything in their path. As for the family farm, it is disappearing from the scene at an alarming rate.

The Republicans face huge problems. They might find solutions by taking a closer look at Virginia’s past and heeding the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, who made the Commonwealth of Virginia possible. They knew that history, politics, economics, and tradition must liberate, not enslave. This is the message—and hope—of Millennium Virginia.