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Virginia at the end of the 19th century


General Fitzhugh Lee
General Fitzhugh Lee

After the war, Virginia’s cities, industries, farms, and railroads were in ruins, and the people had little money with which to rebuild. In 1870 Virginia had 2 million fewer acres in cultivation than in 1860. The old plantation system was dead, and the system of sharecropping and tenant farming gradually took its place. This was a system whereby landless blacks and whites worked farms for landowners who lacked cash to pay wages. A sharecropper raised part of the landlord’s crop and was paid a share of the profit after deductions for living expenses, tools, and supplies. If there was no profit left over, the cropper had to get an advance from the landlord to keep going for another year. A tenant farmer paid rent to the landlord out of the profit from his crop and, if he had none left over, went into debt to the landlord or a local merchant. Because the prices of farm products went down after the war, there was usually little or nothing left over, and as a result most sharecroppers and tenants sank into an endless cycle of debt. Not until World War II (1939-1945), when widespread mechanization of agriculture made sharecropping unprofitable, did the system begin to disappear.

The state was saddled with a staggering debt, much of it dating from before the war. Bitter political battles ensued between a faction called the Funders, who wanted to pay the debt in full, and the Readjusters, who wanted it reduced or repudiated. The Readjusters, led by ex-Confederate General William Mahone, gained control of the legislature in 1879 and repudiated a large part of the debt. This brought protests and threats of legal action by creditors, but the question was finally settled in 1892 when the creditors agreed to a compromise.

Further relief came in 1915, when the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that West Virginia had to pay its share of the debts incurred before it seceded from Virginia. Mahone built a powerful political machine—an organization to control party offices and patronage—within the Republican Party. It controlled the legislature until 1883. In 1885 General Fitzhugh Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee, was elected governor and became the first in a long line of Democratic governors.

During this period, Northern capital spurred the growth of industry. Textile mills and cigarette factories sprang up, and the railroad system was expanded. New urban centers emerged at Roanoke, where the Norfolk and Western Railroad maintained its repair shops, and at Newport News, where one of the nation’s largest shipyards was established. Coal mines and sawmills played increasingly important roles in the mountain counties. Tens of thousands of workers found employment in Chesapeake Bay fisheries and in seafood processing plants. Nevertheless, the state’s population remained largely rural and agricultural as the 19th century drew to a close. "Virginia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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