"Virginia Divided; the Union Dissolved": Geography in American Democracy and the Lessons of West Virginia
Altman, Victoria Brett
“VIRGINIA DIVIDED; THE UNION DISSOLVED”:GEOGRAPHY IN AMERICAN DEMOCRACY AND THE LESSONS OF WEST VIRGINIAVictoria B. Altman, B.A.MALS Mentor: Michael Wall, Ph.D.ABSTRACTOver four centuries, Americans spread out across a continent marked by extreme geographic variety. Local landscapes influenced regional identities, molded economic and social communities, and shaped the kinds of governance Americans wanted for themselves. Although the Constitution designed a flexible federal republic to accommodate both regional and national priorities, conflict between geographically defined sections has threatened to scuttle the Union more than once. Ongoing sectional differences raise the question of whether the United States is in fact too geographically diverse to function successfully as one political unit.Prior to 1863, West Virginia was but a section of a larger Virginia, separated from eastern Virginia by mountains. This physical barrier contributed to a mental, economic, and political separation that ended in western Virginia’s secession from the Old Dominion and the formation of a new state. The geographic context of this conflict makes it an ideal case study for assessing the role of geography in the twenty-first century Union.In Size and Democracy, political theorists Robert Dahl and Edward Tufte offer strategies for alleviating internal political conflict; yet the last concedes that if other measures fail to promote good government the only answer may be the dissolution of the state. An examination of Virginia’s political history to 1863 reveals firstly how the state’s geography influenced the development of separate societies to the east and west, and secondly how each of Dahl and Tufte’s initial strategies failed to ease western Virginia’s grievances with the state’s central government, leading them to take the final step towards secession from the commonwealth. This study draws direct lines between the natural environment, the political preferences of the people who lived there, and the quality of the governance they received.This study found that geography does play an undeniable and deterministic role in democratic government, but that disparate geography does not make political failure inevitable. Human beings, after all, are sentient players with the ability to reason and compromise at will. Compromise, however, is necessary if a large polity is to survive; if American democracy is going to continue, Americans must rise above their geography to do it.
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