The growth of the region has come primarily from people moving here from other states or countries. Survey downstate Virginians and you will find many not wanting to travel here much less move here. Most will cite traffic as their main objection, but clearly there are differences in lifestyle and perspectives across the regions of the Commonwealth.
For those who move here and live here for a short time or even for decades, there are many questions about the state — its history, traditions, politics, and culture.
I often get questions directed to me as an elected official who is a native Virginian and student of her history. Periodically, I teach a course on Virginia history at the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) of George Mason University at its Reston location at the United Christian Parish.
This week, I just started a new class that I have entitled “What is it about Virginia?” Once again most of the students are “come heres.” Even though as retirees they may have lived here for a long period of time, they still have questions about the state, its history, its impact nationally, and its people.
First there is the history. As Ronald Heinemann and his co-authors described it in their book Old Dominion, New Commonwealth: A History of Virginia 1607-2007 (University of Virginia Press, 2007):
“Four centuries of remarkable history. Site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Home of the first representative assembly in America. Landing place of the first Africans in the Chesapeake, whose heirs were among the first to be enslaved on the plantations of British North America. Birthplace of the great generation of founders, who led the Revolution and created a brilliant constitutional order, four of whom were among the first five presidents of the new republic. Mother of presidents. Mother of states. The state whose territory was the scene of much of the critical fighting of the Civil War…The Commonwealth of Virginia — the Old Dominion — was without peer in the first two-and-a-half centuries of American history.”
Then came the matter of being on the wrong side of the Civil War and the move “to a defensive, tradition-bound, inward-looking, and different version of American development (1820-1960) and back again to a progressively conservative society in the late twentieth century” to today when President Obama wins the state twice, all five statewide elected officials are Democrats, and the General Assembly is controlled by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.
The major themes that play throughout Virginia history — change and continuity, a conservative political order, race and slavery, economic development, social divisions, and geographic diversity help to make Virginia a fascinating topic for discussion. I hope my students will enjoy the class as much as I am sure that I will, and I hope someday to be able to talk with you about Virginia.
Ken Plum represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Reston Now.
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