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A Saga of the New South

Race, Law, and Public Debt in Virginia
Brent Tarter

BUY Cloth · 232 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813938776 · $39.50 · Jul 2016
BUY Ebook · 232 pp. · ISBN 9780813938769 · $39.50 · Jul 2016

In the lead-up to the Civil War, Virginia, like other southern states, amassed a large public debt while striving to improve transportation infrastructure and stimulate economic development. A Saga of the New South delves into the largely untold story of the decades-long postwar controversies over the repayment of that debt. The result is a major reinterpretation of late-nineteenth-century Virginia political history.

The post–Civil War public debt controversy in Virginia reshaped the state’s political landscape twice. First it created the conditions under which the Readjuster Party, a biracial coalition of radical reformers, seized control of the state government in 1879 and successfully refinanced the debt; then it gave rise to a counterrevolution that led the elitist Democratic Party to eighty years of dominance in the state's politics. Despite the Readjusters’ victory in refinancing the debt and their increased spending for the popular new system of free public schools, the debt controversy generated a long train of legal disputes—at least eighty-five cases reached the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and twenty-nine reached the Supreme Court of the United States. Through an in-depth look at these political and legal contests, A Saga of the New South sheds new light on the many obstacles that reformers faced in Virginia and the South after the Civil War.


A Saga of the New South is a remarkable piece of highly original scholarship on a hugely important topic in Virginia history. Brent Tarter's treatment—thorough yet provocative, a vintage Tarter production—goes far to explain the ferocious struggle and historical discontinuity of late-nineteenth-century Virginia politics, a struggle that reverberated from Reconstruction down through the years of Harry F. Byrd to Massive Resistance.

Peter Wallenstein, Virginia Tech, author of Cradle of America: A History of Virginia

No one knows Virginia's political history better than Brent Tarter. With expert skill, he traces the twisting path of Virginia's debt controversy through the tumultuous decades after the Civil War, revealing fault lines that endure to today.

Edward Ayers, University of Richmond, author of The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction

Tarter’s work is well researched and crisply written. It covers Virginia’s internal political struggles with debt more completely than other books or articles have. Any scholar of Virginia or West Virginia history will want to add A Saga of the South to his or her library.

Randall S. Gooden, Clayton State University · West Virginia History

History's boneyard is filled with painfully complex and truly arcane stories. Public debt is surely one of them. But in A Saga of the New South, ace scavenger Brent Tarter proves us wrong. His account of how Viginia acquired its public debt beginning in 1822 and took until the mid-twentieth century to dispose of it is a big story that ranges widely in scope, depth, and consequence. As Brent, himself, might say: It just explains a darn lot.

Journal of the Shenandoah Valley During the Civil War Era

About the Author(s): 

Brent Tarter is a founding editor of the Library of Virginia’s Dictionary of Virginia Biography and the author of Daydreams and Nightmares: A Virginia Family Faces Secession and War (Virginia).

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