Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.1
The US Constitution, shaped by Virginia politicians, did not anticipate the emergence of political parties. The Constitution was designed to resolve sectional disputes, and to balance power between the states with small and large populations.
The Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties were the first to develop, and their divergent philosophies were clear in the heated election of 1800. Virginia politicians led the nation as president between 1800-24. In the 1820 election, James Monroe received all but one of the electoral votes. After 1820, the Federalist Party faded away as Andrew Jackson mobilized populist voters on the western frontier.
Jackson's Democratic-Republican party divided to become two national parties in the 1830's, the Whigs and the Democrats.
Both the Whigs and the Democrats split in the 1850's into regional factions that disagreed over the extension of slavery into the territories, especially Kansas and Nebraska. The dispute led to dissolution of the Whigs, the creation of the Republican Party, and the division of the Democratic Party. In 1860, the Northern faction of the Democratic Party nominated Stephen Douglas, but the southern faction walked out of the convention and nominated John Breckinridge in a convention held in Richmond, Virginia.
Virginia voted for John Bell, nominated by the new Constitutional Union Party in hopes of finding a way to compromise and save the union. After Abraham Lincoln was elected, Virginia seceded from the United States and joined the Confederate State of America in 1861.
The Union was preserved by military force and a four-year civil war, and between 1867-1870 Virginia was under military rule as Military District 1. During Reconstruction, political struggles in Virginia were between the Conservatives and the Republican parties. After the end of military rule and the withdrawal of the Federal Army following the disputed Hayes-Tilden presidential election in 1876, the Republican Party lost any opportunity to win a statewide election. Republicans were too closely associated with the Union Army that had fought across Virginia between 1861-65.
The Conservatives aligned with the national Democratic Party, while opponents formed the Readjuster Party. The Readjuster Party, led by William Mahone, sought to pay less than 100% of the pre-war debt by partially repudiating some of the bonds and/or by modifying the payment dates in order to free up some state funding for public schools and social services. Conservatives had no desire to support the freed slaves in particular, and regained power in Virginia after claiming the Readjusters were advocates of social equality between whites and blacks.
A race riot in Danville in 1883 crystallized voter fears, and the Democrats consolidated power in 1886. Virginia remained part of the "Solid South," committed to the Democratic Party until 1973. The Republicans were painted as liberals, willing to fund programs that benefited African-Americans, while Democrats implemented Jim Crow laws that restricted the legal rights of non-whites and legalized segregation.
The 1902 state constitution disenfranchised almost all non-white voters. The challenge of defining "white" culminated with General Assembly passage of the 1924 Racial Integrity Act and the campaign of the first registrar of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics, Dr. Walter Plecker, to categorize anyone with one drop of non-white blood as Negro. Governor and then Senator Harry Byrd established a political machine that dominated Virginia politics until the 1960's. Racism was core to his political control; the Byrd "organization" led the effort to implement a program of massive resistance to block implementation of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court.
After the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, the national Democratic Party shifted policies and began to support civil rights and higher taxes to fund government programs such as Social Security. The Virginia Democratic Party, under Sen. Byrd's direction, stayed reliably conservative.
All officials elected in statewide elections were Democrats, and the General Assembly was dominated by one party from 1886-1969. There were only a handful of elected Republicans, and patronage for Republicans was limited to Federal appointments by Republican presidents. The state legislature followed Byrd's "pay as you go" approach. In order to minimize taxes and debt, the General Assembly funded new roads and schools from just annual tax revenues and refused to sell bonds.
By the 1950's, Byrd stopped endorsing the Democratic Party's presidential candidates and maintained a "golden silence" every four years. In state elections, the Democratic Party was in such control that nomination in that party's primary was "tantamount to election." Only in the Ninth Congressional District in southwestern Virginia (the "Fighting Ninth") did Republicans succeed in winning a significant number of races, and one political scientist complained that Virginia was just a "museum of democracy." Virginia lacked viable two-party contests that reflected the shifting priorities of the voters, because the Byrd Machine successfully restricted who could register and vote through devices such as poll taxes.
In Virginia, the increasing population in urban areas was blocked from gaining political power by careful drawing of election districts. Rural voters allied with the Byrd Organization, especially in the Shenandoah Valley and Southside Virginia, dominated elections until 1962 when the Supreme Court's Baker v. Carr decision forced redistricting to comply with the "one person, one vote" standard. The urban and suburban voters in Virginia were more supportive of funding for public schools, and willing to go into debt to finance public infrastructure such as roads.
In 1969, Sen. Byrd was dead and the Democratic Party in Virginia divided between conservatives and more-liberal voters.
1. "Ernest Benn," The Quotations Page, http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Ernest_Benn/ (last checked August 21, 2014)
Virginia Government and Politics