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Understanding the Virginia Way

(Editor’s Note: David is on personal leave this week. This is a reprint of one of his first articles written for The Journal in 2003.)

Being a Virginian is probably one of my greatest sources of pride.  And yet, when asked why I have such enthusiasm and why I carry on so about being a Virginian, I sometimes have trouble explaining myself. What is it about being from the Commonwealth that evokes such a response? It is, after all, just one of fifty states, and by no means is it the largest, the most prosperous, or even the most well known.

For instance, when I travel overseas, when asked where I am from in the U.S., I will say, expecting that everyone knows exactly what I am talking about, “Virginia.” But, alas, most of the time, the response is, “where’s that?”

They know all about New York, everyone seems to watch “Law and Order,” and they know the state where Arnold was Governor.

And many have heard of Texas. That’s where George Bush is from.

And if they have seen the “Wizard of Oz,” they have heard of Kansas too.  But that’s about it.
I don’t mind this all that much.  

But you see, like most Virginians, I tend to view the Commonwealth, and that’s what we Virginians reverentially call our home state, as somehow rising above the status of simply being just another state. In a sense, I view Virginia as an entity unto itself, the first colony, and the United States, as being lucky enough to have us as a participant.

I know, I guess that sounds a bit arrogant, but being just a tad arrogant, in a nice and genteel way of course, is a part of what makes a Virginian.  We’re not boastful -- we never want anyone else to feel bad, that would be very un-Virginia like -- but we know, deep down in our hearts, that Virginia and the Commonwealth are the ideal to which everyone else should be aspiring.

Virginians as a rule tend to be very calm and deliberate about the way they approach the trials of life. This is part of what’s called the “Virginia Way.”

While other states can be radical and volatile, Virginia is none of those things. We are very deliberate, painfully so sometimes, and frugal in our public affairs. To some this sense of restraint can be downright maddening. But that’s just the way we are.

For instance, there are a whole slew of amendments to the U.S. Constitution, ones that long since were approved by the rest of the states, that Virginia has put on the shelf.  We may approve them someday, but then again we may not.

For instance, Virginia has never approved the 17th amendment, allowing the popular election of Senators, and it took until 1952 for it to ratify, somewhat belatedly, the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote. That’s not to say that Virginia didn’t think that either of these amendments were important, it’s just that we don’t want to be rushed. What can I say, I guess it’s fortunate that sometimes the rest of the states have a greater sense of urgency.

This elusive and hard to define “Virginia Way” probably can be traced to our early colonists.

While 21st Century Virginia is much more industrial and diverse than it was in colonial days, we still borrow much of our identity from what was a colony of “freeholders.”  People who, having left countries where they worked for someone else on someone else’s land, were proud of their new status as independent landowners.

As such, Virginia has always had a special deference towards property rights and a profound restraint in what it did and what it asked of its citizens.

Those who led successfully, whether in the 18th century, or the 20th, did so by understanding this aspect of the philosophy of the Virginia Way.

Those who forget this lesson in the 21st do so at their peril.

This leads to another aspect of what it means to be a Virginian.  Maybe the most profound of all, and that’s our reverence for our history.   

In a sense, in Virginia, history -- whether it’s the founding fathers or Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson -- is not something we read about, it’s something that continues to define us. It’s very much alive.
We still look to these individuals, through their writings and their deeds, almost as if they are still here with us, for guidance and direction.  And to this day, we try and frame a way of life and a government that would be worthy of them.

And while Virginia may seem a little quirky to some -- and indeed it even seems that way to me sometimes -- I know, that whether I’m in the western highlands enjoying the mountain air, on the Northern Neck fishing, or basking in the breezes of a summer evening at Virginia Beach, that I am part of a unique and special experience.

One that may well explain why I often have such a delight, whether I have simply gone to Washington D.C. to work, or overseas to travel, to once again see that “Welcome to Virginia” sign know I have come home to the Commonwealth.

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