The Birth of America

Posted April 16, 2007 at 2:42pm

Virginia marks the site where Europe, Africa and the Americas were once connected as the supercontinent Pangaea and then broke apart. Through the establishment of the English settlement of Jamestown 400 years ago along the Chesapeake Bay, the three continents came together once again.

In his book “Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History,” Peter Wallenstein tracks the birth of a nation through the story of one state. But unlike traditional textbooks, the history professor at Virginia Tech highlights the clashes, both physical and cultural, that shaped modern Virginia and the country today.

From the start of the book, Wallenstein focuses on the collision between Europeans, American Indians and blacks to show how race relations is central in Virginia and American history.

“Red, white and black, these three groups created a new world that none of which was exactly what any of them wanted,” Wallenstein said. “But it [was a new world] that reflected their participation, their contribution and their presence.”

With the upcoming 400th anniversary of Jamestown in May, Wallenstein said he wanted readers to think differently about the traditional story of where the United States began. While most think of pilgrims, the Plymouth Colony and Thanksgiving, Wallenstein points out that Jamestown encapsulates the true essence of the American story.

Wallenstein compares the story of the pilgrims coming to America in search of freedom from religious persecution with the Chesapeake Bay settlers. They came as indentured servants, free and enslaved, wanting to “reinvent themselves and gamble with their future,” Wallenstein said.

“That’s more typically, perhaps, the American story,” Wallenstein said.

The nearly 500-page book is a montage of narratives, from the American Indians who fought against the earliest settlers and the historical American figures who created the Constitution to the black Virginians who helped shape the country’s economy and history.

Wallenstein frames his narratives with sidebars and photographs that that ask readers new questions about American history and the people associated with it.

Wallenstein begins with the story of Pocahontas, whose union to Englishman John Rolfe resulted in peace between the Europeans and American Indians, and Opechancanough, a warrior who eventually led an uprising that broke the truce. Opechancanough’s failed attempt and his death “at colonists’ hands” made way for the New World to become America, Wallenstein writes.

Wallenstein highlights the role of George Mason as the father of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution. Mason advocated for state rights and “embodied Americans’ growing conviction that it was far better to live with than without a written agreement about the structure of power … of individuals’ rights against their government.”

In the times leading up to the Civil War and thereafter, Wallenstein writes about the struggle for power between Virginia and other states. With native Virginians serving in the office of the president of the U.S. from 1789 to 1825, other states were wary of Virginia’s growing influence.

But within Virginia also were two regions coexisting and yet divided by the Blue Ridge Mountains and between the white and black population.

“I wanted to highlight that continuing collision and show how everybody played a role,” Wallenstein said.

From Thomas Jefferson to the state’s first black governor, Douglas Wilder, and other Virginia politicians, Wallenstein said the book illustrates the continuing battles on how the Old Dominion should be represented in government.

“Cradle of America” emphasizes the role of black Virginians in shaping state and national politics — from those who arrived with the settlers to Jamestown as servants and slaves, to those who fought in the Civil War, struggled under Jim Crow and worked to end it. One Virginia native portrayed in the book is Dred Scott, who moved to the Midwest and sued for his freedom.

“One lone ranger still remains a critically important part of Virginia history,” Wallenstein said.

The book never strays away from the racial tensions that are pervasive in the histories of Virginia and America in general. Wallenstein said race relations have always been complex.

“What I want people to see, no matter what their own racial identity, is that it’s never been a simple situation,” he said.

Wallenstein details iconic figures in Virginia’s history such as Harry Flood Byrd Sr., who was first governor and later became a U.S. Senator. Byrd is known for his”‘massive resistance” policy against the desegregation of schools in the 1950s.

Wallenstein notes that Byrd had tremendous influence over the state at the time.

“He controlled the state for a longer period, to a greater extent than anybody else in the history of the state or colony,” Wallenstein said. “So he trumps Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and all those other folks by how much he led.”

The book, targeted at academics, college students and K-12 teachers, includes stories that may not be part of other history texts. Wallenstein writes about Barbara Kenny and her partner, Tibby Middleton, who were forced to move to Maryland when Virginia passed the Affirmation of Marriage Act of 2004 prohibiting marriage between same-sex couples.

Wallenstein said he anticipates that this final story will draw fire from those who say it should not be part of a book on the history of Virginia. But that does not faze the author as he admitted that there are “grenades throughout the book” meant to “shake things up” and force people to rethink history.