Beneath the Battlefields 

Richmond is still fighting the Civil War. Not along the tired old North-South lines, but on far more subtle fields.

click to enlarge A Confederate flag flutters in the audience as Gov. Bob McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and U.S. Senate candidate George Allen chat on stage at April's Shad Planking in Wakefield. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A Confederate flag flutters in the audience as Gov. Bob McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and U.S. Senate candidate George Allen chat on stage at April's Shad Planking in Wakefield.

Sorry, Virginia. Looks like you don't have "the sovereign authority to nullify federal law."

You might have thought that matter got settled 150 years ago. Actually, it happened this month, when a three-judge panel of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals told Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli that the state lacked standing to challenge the federal affordable health-care act.

The legal language in the opinion is dry. But it maintains a faintly incredulous tone. If Virginia got its way, that means each state "could become a roving constitutional watchdog," the judges wrote, challenging whatever federal policies it deemed unfair. A lawsuit such as Virginia's, they wrote, "usurps this sovereign prerogative of the federal government and threatens 'the general supremacy of federal law.'"

It's not just Cuccinelli who's fighting the feds. In the 2011 session of the General Assembly, state legislators proposed several pro-Virginia, anti-federal bills. One would have allowed a majority of state legislatures to repeal federal legislation. Another said Virginia "hereby claims sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States" over all powers not otherwise granted to the federal government. Yet another would have allowed Virginia to explore minting its own money. (All failed to become law.)

The Civil War decided that the nation was, in fact, indivisible. But the debate over the relationship of states to the federal government keeps right on going, especially in Virginia. The big question, says historian Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, is this: "Where does the ultimate authority of the United States lie?... Is it with the nation, or is it with the states?"

Today's political dialogue may be acrimonious, but it's nothing compared to the winter of 1861. A meeting room in Richmond was "packed with a lot of smelly men, dressed in wool, yelling at each other," explains Andrew Talkov, exhibit coordinator for Virginia's Civil War sesquicentennial at the Virginia Historical Society. The topic: Should Virginia secede?

The conversation was both impassioned and inflammatory. "Because Virginians were so divided ... the people at this convention were really trying to convince one another to change their minds," says historian and author Nelson D. Lankford. Each party said "scurrilous" things about the other, he says.

Initially, much of the Virginia political establishment was "for slavery, for states' rights and for the Union. That sounds contradictory to us," Lankford says. But they felt their rights would be better protected in the Union.

On April 4, the convention said no to secession. On April 17, after Fort Sumter, it said yes.

Interestingly, Talkov notes, both sides thought they were protecting what the nation's founders fought for. The Union, he says, was defending the words of the Constitution. The Confederacy was defending the spirit of the Constitution — the sovereignty of states.

"That's one of the reasons the Civil War is so charged," Ayers says: that people sympathetic to the Confederacy and secession also tend to be sympathetic to small government. "Today's politics are rhyming with the Civil War."

IT'S NOT JUST state politics. Since the war, regional politics have pitted the city against itself and the neighboring counties. The pendulum of power in Richmond has swung wide, from white to black and back again.

In the 1950s, Richmond saw suburban white flight and growing black political unity.

In 1970, the city annexed 23 square miles of Chesterfield County, tipping the city's racial majority back to white. (This despite the United States Supreme Court's deeming the move constitutionally impermissible.)

In 1977, the Supreme Court forced the city to return to a ward-based political system to protect the black vote.

We've come a long way, says John Moeser, senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond. "Race always in Richmond lies just under the surface. We by no means live in a post-racial society," he says. "On the other hand, when you look at our [city] politics today, we, thank goodness, are not experiencing any kind of racial polarization politically."

Richmond has a majority-white City Council for the first time in a while, but the black community's fine with it, he observes. Today's white council members are not the heirs of the old power structure.

Has the pendulum of power come to rest? Perhaps not yet. Or maybe the entire political structure is stalled.

click to enlarge "There's something extraordinary about Virginia," says the Rev. Ben Campbell. And, he says, "there's also something horrible — and that is underground, and that's not identified." He believes it's the legacy of slavery. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • "There's something extraordinary about Virginia," says the Rev. Ben Campbell. And, he says, "there's also something horrible — and that is underground, and that's not identified." He believes it's the legacy of slavery.

Richmond civic leader and preservationist Mary Tyler Freeman Cheek McClenahan once told the Rev. Ben Campbell, "You know, Richmond is the only place I know where when people say, 'That'll never happen,' they mean it." Campbell, pastoral director at Richmond Hill, believes that's the legacy of slavery and racial divides. He feels a cloud of inertia hanging over the city — "unacknowledged invisible forces that stop things from happening."

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