THE treaty of peace removed the external danger of conquest, but it was the signal for the renewal of the political contest which had been going on in Virginia ever since 1765 and which had reached a climax in 1776. The pressure of war and the necessity of suppressing Toryism had prevented violent party divisions after that year, though in 1779 the conservatives took advantage of Jefferson's removal from the assembly to attempt a partial restoration of the established church, and in 1781 they obtained control of the governor's office when Jefferson's failure as a war executive became evident.
The restoration of peace removed the restraint which the need of harmonious action in a time of crisis had placed upon the two wings of the patriot party. At last conservatives and democrats might fight for the mastery without fear of outside complications. They might now decide whether the social revolution that had begun in 1776 should go further, or whether the Old Dominion should revert to the conditions of the colonial period. If Jefferson had retained his popularity and the active leadership of the democratic party, it is not likely that the conservatives would have felt themselves strong enough to attempt reactionary legislation, but Jefferson was living abroad in eclipse and the conservative party, in his absence, was stronger than its rival. Several circumstances combined to brighten the outlook for the conservatives in 1784, when the contest began. Although a number of western counties had been created during the war, the conservatives still held control of the tier of small tidewater counties, and as counties were equally represented in the House of Delegates, the eastern section had as many members as the populous central and western districts. Then again, the conservatives counted on their side the most influential leaders. Some of them were of the planter type, like John Tyler and Benjamin Harrison, while others were brilliant young lawyers such as Henry Tazewell and John Marshall, the future Chief Justice. Towering above these stood Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, who were now opposing the Revolutionary development as warmly as they had advocated the Revolution itself in 1775. Henry and Lee fought each other for the leadership of the assembly from 1782 to 1784 and then joined hands in an effort at a conservative restoration. They were rivals, but they had much in common besides their hatred of Jefferson.
As it chanced, religion was the issue on which the struggle turned. The Anglican Church had been well-nigh ruined by the loss of tithes and the upheaval of the war, but the planters were still mainly Anglican in belief and they had come to appreciate the value of the church as a social bulwark. Formerly dissenting communions like the Presbyterians and Baptists had also rather lost than gained by the war, while freethinking abounded. Indeed, democracy more and more tended to be associated with unbelief and hostility to organized worship. Jefferson himself shared this rather superficial skepticism, which flourished like a green bay tree in Virginia in the last decades of the eighteenth century and then withered suddenly and completely early in the nineteenth. In making their stand on the religious question, the conservatives were combating at a vital point the leveling principle now beginning deeply to influence the illiterate masses throughout the State.
At that time probably none of the American States had absolutely severed political and religious connection; certainly New England had some distance to go before reaching religious liberty. Many serious-minded men felt that Virginia had ventured far enough in the direction of liberalism and that faith itself was endangered. Consequently, strong support arose for the movement to reestablish state patronage of religion when the end of the war once more allowed men to turn their minds towards internal matters. There was no question of the restoration of the Anglican communion as the single state church, for the Presbyterians and Baptists were too numerous to make such a thing possible. But it was practicable to lay a tax on property for the general support of religion and to apportion the proceeds among the various churches; and it was in this form that Henry presented the question to the assembly when it met in Richmond for the May, 1784, session.
The spring debate was preliminary. At the fall meeting of the assembly a resolution approving an "assessment," or tax for religious support, passed the House of Delegates, and a bill levying such a tax was introduced and fiercely debated. On this occasion Patrick Henry was opposed by James Madison and George Nicholas, who had taken the leadership of the democratic party. Both of them clearly realized the danger to individualism involved in such a paternal measure as the religious assessment; they fought it with determination and energy. Nevertheless, Henry had a small majority in both houses, and the bill would have passed if the orator had not accepted another election to the governorship at the critical moment, November, 1784. We do not know the real reason for Henry's abdication of his leadership at the very threshold of decisive success. It is highly probable that his opponents wished to get rid of him by electing him governor, but he was too astute to be misled by an obvious ruse. Henry probably acquiesced in his election because he saw that any form of religious restraint would soon prove highly unpopular with the democratic majority in the State, and by becoming governor he was able to free himself from a dubious policy. At all events, with Henry out of the way, Madison succeeded in postponing final action on the assessment to the next meeting of the assembly.
Both sides now appealed to the people, and Madison wrote his noblest paper in advocacy of complete separation of church and state. His supporters worked feverishly through the central and southern counties in the summer of 1785 and to such effect that when the assembly met in the fall religious taxation was buried beneath a pyramid of adverse petitions. Madison took advantage of the opportunity to bring forward Jefferson's Bill for Religious Freedom, which had been shelved since 1779. It passed without difficulty. Virginia thus became one of the first states in the world completely to divorce religion from politics. This victory of liberalism was quickly followed by a wave of democratic enthusiasm. The effort to halt the Revolution had failed; it was destined to go forward to its logical conclusion. In the same year, 1785, the first movement for the abolition of slavery arose in Virginia. It proved abortive, of course, but it is a proof of the progress of radicalism. In the following years democratic social and political ideas continued to grow, although there was still a strong conservative element in the tidewater.
The struggle over the adoption by Virginia in 1788 of the United States Constitution is not without its puzzling features. The westerners, the great upholders of individualism, generally opposed it, while the tidewater planters, who imagined they saw a hope for themselves in the centralizing tendencies of the Constitution, favored it. By such an apparent inversion of position as often occurs in politics, Patrick Henry led the anti-Federalists in the interests of States' Rights and democracy, and Madison became the successful leader of the Federalists. Henry made the most brilliant fight of his career on this occasion, but ratification was carried by a small majority and was distinctly a victory of the planter reactionaries.
The success of the Federalists was not followed by a conservative ascendency in Virginia as in Massachusetts. The principles of democracy were too passionately held by the great majority of men in all sections of the State to allow a return to the rule of the planter oligarchy. As soon as it became evident that the new Union was no rights-of-man government, but a highly conservative political and social structure, discontent broke out among the Virginia democrats. Thus, when Jefferson retired from Washington's Cabinet he found the material existing for a party opposed to Federalist ideas, and he spent the next few years in its organization. In this manner the Democratic-Republican Party came into being.
The democratic impulse was immensely quickened by the French Revolution. Virginia, which had experienced a real contest between the forces of conservatism and liberalism, welcomed with enthusiasm the stimulating Gallican propaganda. Indeed, the Old Dominion was transformed thereby. It became the fashion in the North in a later age to sneer at the inconsistency of the Revolutionary generation in preserving the institution of slavery, though subscribing to the Declaration of Independence dogma that all men are created free and equal. This inconsistency is more apparent than real. That the statement was meant to apply in a political rather than a social sense, we all, of course, now understand; but it also had a very practical social application. The Revolution changed the attitude of the mass of Virginia people towards the negro race and the transformation lasted until the end of slavery. In the colonial era slaves were looked on as little better than brute beasts and were frequently treated with great cruelty. The law was absolutely callous, and a great number of poor blacks suffered execution for trifling thefts such as afterwards came to be good-naturedly looked on as a mere African weakness, or froze to death in jail awaiting trial; others were outlawed and killed on sight like wild animals. The records are full of these cases. But in this treatment of the blacks the Virginia people were in no sense more cruel than the rest of the world; it was the world, we must remember, in which men were hanged, drawn and quartered, broken on the wheel and decapitated for comparatively trivial offenses, with an iron disregard for human suffering the present age cannot understand - the antediluvian world before the egalitarian deluge.
The Revolution changed all this. After 1785 a strong and persistent abolitionist sentiment existed in Virginia, and would probably have predominated but for the almost insuperable practical obstacles to emancipation. Popular feeling forced the government to permit private emancipation, which proceeded on such a scale that the institution of slavery was seriously threatened. The assembly intervened in 1816 to save it by requiring freedmen to leave the State within a year of manumission, and the practice of freeing slaves at the death of masters lessened.
Gradually the democratic wave, which began in 1776 and reached high-water mark about 1795, spent its force. It had wrought great changes, but it was not destined to achieve a permanent triumph. Democracy in Europe had received a deathblow by the overthrow of Napoleon in 1815 and America felt the effect of the reaction. In Virginia other reasons contributed to the checking of liberalism. The development of the South and West drew from the Old Dominion its best young manhood and brought on a disastrous economic competition; Virginia lost rank as the greatest of American States and rapidly sank to a secondary position. It was no longer a land of energetic and forward-looking men, but of memories, a place of social amenities and soft dreaming. Under the influence of Sir Walter Scott's novels glorifying the feudal age, the new generation constructed in imagination a colonial past of splendor which had had small counterpart in reality. The old English and aristocratic spirit revived and existed alongside the democratic theories of government which Jefferson had introduced. Jefferson's name was revered while his influence dwindled.' Much, indeed, of the humanitarian teaching of the Revolution continued to permeate society and slavery was softened by this influence to the end, but the fact remains that in Virginia the swing-back from democracy was steadily increasing in momentum from the fall of Napoleon to the Civil War.
1 W. E. Dodd's Statesmen of the Old South, 70.