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Virginia at the beginning of the 20th century


General Fitzhugh Lee
General Fitzhugh Lee

After defeating their Republican opponents, Virginia’s Democrats enacted discriminatory voter registration and election laws in 1884 and 1894 that enabled their party to consolidate its power. Completing this process, delegates met in 1901 to write a new state constitution. The result was a document, effective in 1902, that provided for a poll tax, literacy tests, and other restrictions that disfranchised many black and poor white voters—the groups most likely to vote against the Democrats. For the next half-century Republicans would win few elections outside the mountain counties, the only area where they retained considerable strength.

Meanwhile, Democrats were dividing into “machine” and “independent” factions. The better organized, better financed machine leaders—most notably U.S. Senator Thomas S. Martin—were generally able to control both the party and the state government.

Nevertheless, the first decades of the 20th century witnessed the passage of many progressive reforms, including more money for schools, the creation of a state highway department, improved facilities for the handicapped and the mentally ill, prohibition of alcoholic beverages, new agencies to regulate corporations and to help farmers, and the use of primary elections to choose Democratic candidates for public offices.

After Senator Martin’s death in 1919, Harry F. Byrd, a wealthy farmer and newspaper owner, emerged as the dominant figure in Virginia’s Democratic machine (which came to be known as the Byrd Organization). Elected governor in 1925, he soon gained a national reputation for his conservative approach to state spending, his cost-conscious restructuring of government bureaucracies, and his use of gasoline taxes to finance a debt-free, “pay as you go” program to improve Virginia’s highways. Supported by rural voters and important business leaders, Byrd went to the U.S. Senate in 1933 and dominated Virginia politics until his death in 1966. "Virginia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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