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The Grandees of Government

The Origins and Persistence of Undemocratic Politics in Virginia
Brent Tarter

BUY Cloth · 464 pp. · 6.13 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813934310 · $35.00 · Oct 2013
BUY Ebook · 464 pp. · ISBN 9780813934327 · $35.00 · Oct 2013

From the formation of the first institutions of representative government and the use of slavery in the seventeenth century through the American Revolution, the Civil War, the civil rights movement, and into the twenty-first century, Virginia’s history has been marked by obstacles to democratic change. In The Grandees of Government, Brent Tarter offers an extended commentary based in primary sources on how these undemocratic institutions and ideas arose, and how they were both perpetuated and challenged.

Although much literature on American republicanism focuses on the writings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, among others, Tarter reveals how their writings were in reality an expression of federalism, not of republican government. Within Virginia, Jefferson, Madison, and others such as John Taylor of Caroline and their contemporaries governed in ways that directly contradicted their statements about representative—and limited— government. Even the democratic rhetoric of the American Revolution worked surprisingly little immediate change in the political practices, institutions, and culture of Virginia. The counterrevolution of the 1880s culminated in the Constitution of 1902 that disfranchised the remainder of African Americans. Virginians who could vote reversed the democratic reforms embodied in the constitutions of 1851, 1864, and 1869, so that the antidemocratic Byrd organization could dominate Virginia’s public life for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

Offering a thorough reevaluation of the interrelationship between the words and actions of Virginia’s political leaders, The Grandees of Government provides an entirely new interpretation of Virginia’s political history.


Tarter is a mature scholar who has thought long and deeply about Virginia, and he unquestionably knows more about all of Virginia than anyone else in his generation. His scholarship is as sound as can be. A substantial contribution to understanding how Virginia passed from colony to commonwealth to a state of mind.

Warren M. Billings, University of New Orleans and author of Magistrates and Pioneers: Essays in the History of American Law

Engaging, insightful, and important. Indeed, there is no book like it. Only a handful of people can contend with Brent Tarter in their knowledge of the whole sweep of Virginia history, and probably nobody is as thoroughly acquainted as he is with the sources—both the secondary literature and the available primary documents. An event, and a must-read for anyone who cares about Virginia history.

John d’Entremont, H. Jack Professor of History, Randolph College

[A]n intriguing look... With a narrative sweep running from the 1600s into the present day, Tarter evaluates the words and actions of Virginia's political leaders.

Richmond Times-Dispatch

Brent Tarter's The Grandees of Government written by a senior Virginiahistorian with a comprehensive understanding of the commonwealth's history, offers a well-measuredand comprehensive litany of those deficiencies.... Check out [the book] if you are interested in a serious analysis of the Virginia Way and its implications.

Roanoke Times

The Grandees of Government consists of a chronological series of essays taking us from the founding of Jamestown to the present day. As founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography at the Virginia State Library, Tarter displays an unequaled mastery of the primary sources and literature on Virginia in all periods.... Tarter’s book gives us some reason to hope that another Virginia with a different history is now emerging, that the "continuity" he has so effectively delineated will give way at last to "change."

American Political Thought

About the Author(s): 

Brent Tarter is a founding editor of the Library of Virginia’s Dictionary of Virginia Biography and a cofounder of the annual Virginia Forum.

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