Source: WV History Film Project
WEST VIRGINIA JOHN WILLIAMS CAMERA ROLL 51
Q: So, John, why'd everybody hate your book so
JW: Well, I'd like to think because it was so good. There is an element of that that something that's objectionable, that's dull, or that people who are influential don't read, or that's not publicly noticed, it's a lot easier to deal with. I think, in fact, it is if I may say so, very well written. It's not only well written, it touches a lot of bases that a West Virginia history should touch, but it touches them at an angle. It has a twist, and I think that irritated a certain number of people. There was also the fact that I was new in the state. I'd only lived here three years when I got the contract to do that, and I competed with several people who became critics later.
Q: Why are we drawn to the history of West
JW: There's a long answer and a short answer. I'd like to rephrase that and say, "Why am I drawn"? I'm drawn because I think history is important.
Q: Why don't you keep it impersonal? Why are
we drawn? ?
JW: Why are we drawn?
Q: What special ?
JW: West Virginia is not your average state. Its history has paralleled that of the nation, and in many respects what's happened in West Virginia has happened every where in the United States; but there are a number of areas where West Virginia has departed significantly from what is regarded as the 'normal national experience,' the normal American experience. Some of those things are -- they have made the state famous -- the Hatfield and McCoy feud to be a case in point. Some of made the state notorious. In fact, that was true of the feud at the time as far as respectability. But West Virginia always gets into the national picture in a way that is different, and that's what makes it interesting; that's what makes it controversial.
Q: Why is it ? in a way that's different?
JW: I would argue because in effect the state is different. That is, the terrain imposes certain ...
JW: I would argue that the terrain imposes certain impediments to what would be the expected American experience in any given period of history. That is, the fact that West Virginia is mountainous; the fact that it does not embrace a major crossroads of trade, which means it doesn't have a large city, the fact that it entered the union in a completely distinctive way. All of those things make it different.
Q: What's the story on West Virginia ?
JW: Well, I've done that. I've used a phrase that was used by the original explorer -- when Robert Fallam? wrote in his journey that "It was a pleasing though dreadful sight to see the mountains and hills just piled upon one another." I think I've memorized that, but in any case, what he was talking about was it was beautiful. It caught his breath. I think anybody who's lived in West Virginia, anybody who's simply driven through it, recognizes that moment when you turn a corner and there's a vista that you hadn't expected, and it catches your breath, and it lifts the spirit. You think, "What a terrific place!" But that interesting coupling of pleasing and dreadful -- he was thinking of just getting back over the mountains to where we had come from because he made that statement near the end of his journey.
If we are correct to suppose that his journey, in fact, took him across southern West Virginia, then he was thinking of how many mountains he had to cross to get home; and he was traveling on foot and horseback. So he was thinking of his own comfort, but also since he had been sent out to find a route to the western ocean, he was thinking whatever route he had found was not going to be very good. So it's dreadful in terms of accomplishing human purposes, human purposes that would fulfill the larger ambitions of whoever is doing the talking -- in Fallam's case, it's exploration. In another period it would be land speculators or people who wanted to acquire a large tract of land found they had to either take a lot of land they didn't regard as valuable, or they had to come out in somewhat dangerous and uncomfortable circumstances, like Washington did, and look for it and find the long, narrow strips in which such land existed.
At another period of time, dreadful meant being a Civil War general. As General Cox sat, looking at the maps spread out on your office table, and thinking 'we'll march from here to here,' and finding in fact that march had also some impediments that weren't shown on the map over difficult terrain -- terrain that was barren of food, terrain that had very little water, and that was a burden on men, horses and wagons, and everything else. In another period of history, the difficulty was in transportation planning, not on horseback like Fallam, but with the railroad, or later with the highway. Then sometimes in the twentieth century Americans have had a lot of mirrors held up in front of their faces in the form of popular culture -- radio, television, film -- and those mirrors usually reflected a way of life that took place in a distant metropolitan area.
Like other Americans, West Virginians wanted to live that way; but again, the terrain or something about the state was dreadful. For example, the lifestyle of southern California was popularized through film, and West Virginians want patios. But, how many days a year can you sit out on the patio in West Virginia? The climate's damp. Patios replace porches, but they're much less useful. That's a minor point, but it's the same thing -- that the same thing that makes the land so enchanting and that has in every period of history clustered the people together in small communities that reinforced the sense of belong, the sense of being in a place that was 'right' for me or you or whoever was doing the feeling. Those positive things flow out of the same combination of geological and surface features that makes it difficult to make a living. So it's a beautiful place, and it's a hard place at the same time.
Q: Let's go over that short answer, the last part of
which is ? in capsule form. Why does this duality
exist here to a different degree than it does
JW: You've thrown a curve in that.
(Both talking at once).
JW: The short answer is that it's a pleasing though dreadful land because it's a beautiful place and it's a hard place to make a living. It's a great place to live, and a hard place to make a living. That's true of many corners of many states in the union, but it's true to an extent that you don't find in many other states.
Q: ? West Virginia ?
JW: You know when you ask a professor you get a 'on one hand or the other,' right?
Q: Why don't you give me one?
JW: Well, of course one of the questions we always have in American history is when is the beginning. The beginning is with the Native Americans. West Virginia is not a word that they would have recognized. It's a territory in which they lived; they lived at a period that was remote from the recorded European experience. Therefore, there is ten thousand years or more of human habitation here which is not West Virginia, and yet it took place in the land that we know as West Virginia. The fact that there weren't any natives living here when the Europeans came complicates that when you're telling a story about West Virginia because in fact while Indian warfare was the critical early episode of West Virginia history, in fact the Indians didn't live here.
So when you talk about permanent human habitation in the era of recorded history, then you're talking about the 1730's in the Eastern Panhandle, 20's in Jefferson County maybe, 1750's in the South Branch Valley, and 1760's and 1770's everywhere else in the state except along the Tug Fork -- you're talking around 1790's there.
Q: Why didn't the Native Americans live
JW: That's a question we really don't know. We don't really have an absolute answer. We know that they did live here; we obviously have things like the Mound Builders. We have the evidence of several successive indigenous cultures that occupied this territory. As to why it was vacant at the time of European occupation, there are two possibilities. It was probably a combination of both. One was disease. The microbes that the Europeans brought spread out before they did. The process by which an Indian would come in contact with the European and carry the microbes back to the native communities meant that people could die off from new diseases out of sight -- and therefore off of the history record. That probably happened, but it happened everywhere; and this territory was vacant to an unusual extent.
... WILLIAMS INTERVIEW, TAKE 3, CAMERA ROLL 51, SOUND ROLL 1
Q: Okay, just ? ? ? some? names? at you.
JW: All right.
Q. Do a little ? ...
WILLIAMS INTERVIEW, TAKE 4, ROLL 52, SOUND ROLL 2
Q: Okay, John. Let's get into the meat of the
characters here in our show. George Washington,
West Virginia. Tell me about it.
JW: Washington was the type that -- Washington was an absentee landowner, one of the characters that we think dominated West Virginia. We usually don't associate Washington with that, but that's exactly what he was. He was also what we call in our century a developer. He got the land out here; he got it free. He wanted to develop transportation facilities that would bring people and allow them to produce commercial crops, get them to market, and that would allow his land that much more valuable. He had land at the other end of the pipe line as well.
JW: He had land at the other end of the pipe line. He had land in the --
Q: Excuse me. ? ... his land was valuable.
What was he going to do with the land?
JW: He was going to sell it. The best way, the best profit you can make is to get something free and sell it for a good price. That's basically what Washington wanted to do; and like any developer in any century, he wanted the government to build some facilities and that would help him make his land more valuable. In his case, unlike a suburban developer in the 1980's or 90's, he wanted basic transportation. Today, the developer would just want sewers or paved streets; that's what he wants. Now, because he's the first President, the founder of the country, the successful general in the Revolutionary War, we're very proud of his association with West Virginia. If you go around the State of West Virginia, you're bound to run into somebody who will say, "Well, my land belonged to George Washington. We have a deed signed by George Washington." They very well may, but that deed will be a product of a business transaction.
Washington was an eminently practical man; he was a businessman. He was, as far as we know, the wealthiest man in the United States at the time of America independence. The importance that needs to be attached to West Virginia is measured by the fact that this was the first place he came as soon as he laid down command of the Revolutionary army in 1783. He was on his horse and across the mountains the following spring.
Q: What was he looking for in West
JW: He was looking for good land, land that would sell, land that was level, land that was suitable for farming, as a very intelligent and well versed 18th century farmer would have appraised it. He had the spirit of the age; the spirit was that of improvement. He experimented in agriculture; he wanted, in fact, to use land efficiently, and one of the ways that -- the easiest land to use efficiently is land that's flat, that's level, that fits the plow to use the phrase that they might have used.
Q: Who was he selling it to?
JW: He was selling to settlers. In other words, he had a generic class of customers in mind, generic class of buyers, people who wanted good land, new land close to rivers where they could grow crops and sell them. That's why he wanted that type of land. He knew there was a market for that kind of land because he'd seen it in the upper Potomac Valley; he'd seen it along the northern neck of Virginia. He'd seen how Lord Fairfax had done -- getting there, getting the land, getting it cheap, and selling it at a good price.
Q: Was the accumulation of land in West
Virginia ? ? such ? ? different from ?
JW: No, it was very typical; it was on a smaller scale what William Penn did or what Lord Culvert in Maryland or what Lord Granville in North Carolina or what Lord Fairfax did in Virginia. They had models. The models were well connected Englishmen who used their connections at Court to get huge tracts of land. As Virginians turned into Americans, the Virginia elite used their political connection to get smaller tracts of land on the frontier. It was, the volume was still large by our standards.
Q: Was the land more difficult to find ? ?
JW: Yes, it was. Land was more difficult to find because of the nature of the terrain. West Virginia is a mountainous region; two-thirds of the state is an eroded plateau, which means there are lots of small pockets of land where a single --
... WILLIAMS INTERVIEW, TAKE 5, ROLL 52
Q: Okay, so George came, bought a bunch of
land ripe for the selling ? ? ... That's a blooper roll ...
So what did he leave behind? What's the end of
JW: Washington did, of course, as soon as he had a chance after the Revolution, he came out again looking for the best transportation routes. What he did was to develop a transportation plan for the State of Virginia that would have linked the Potomac and the Ohio Valley, the two areas where he was a landowner at either end, but also a plan that eventually would have linked the Kanawha-James route. It was the ideal transportation route for the State of Virginia. In fact, we have interstates flowing along it now. If Washington's plan had been active? it would have been very difficult for West Virginia to separate from Virginia. But he also, as he wrote, he wrote a catalog of reasons why he expected it not to come to ? and he was absolutely right. Virginia did not come up with the money to pay for this system of what they called at the time of 'internal improvements'. That was Washington's legacy, a good plan and frustration that it was never achieved.
Q: Who came out to settle this place?
JW: The people who came here were what census takers early in this century called your basic colonial stock. That included people of English background; it included people of German background significantly, and it included people of Scotch-Irish background. They were the ones that tended to be the most prominent. Whether they were the most prominent numerically, we will never know because the only way you have of identifying that is by the sound of names. Irish names, English names, and Scottish names do tend to blend together. There was also from the very beginning an African-American component, mostly of people who were held in bondage but not entirely. So we have from the very earliest part of West Virginia a black presence here as well as a white presence.
Q: What kind of people were they? Were they
JW: The extent to which there was an ethnic mix was different from any seaboard colony, except Pennsylvania. This was a population that had first come together and mingled in the colony of Pennsylvania, from which they moved west over several routes and those routes embraced West Virginia. One route was west of the Ohio and down the Ohio, that route fed back into West Virginia along the Ohio river and up the tributaries like the Kanawha. The other major route south of Pennsylvania was on the Great Valley of Virginia, and that of course crossed what is now West Virginia in the area of Martinsburg and Charles Town. Again --
Q: Tell me again -- can you characterize these
people at all and give them some qualities that
characterized ? ? ... one of the theories behind ?
Don't go into the theory, but just tell me how you
would characterize the people who ? ?
JW: The people who settled here were intrepid. There isn't any question about that. They moved rapidly across a frontier which they had imperfect knowledge. They were impelled by the opportunity. They were not refugees in any sense of the word, at least after they crossed the Atlantic. They had acquired a route? in Pennsylvania, a complex of skills, some borrowed from the Indians and some which came from Scandinavia via the settlers in Delaware that enabled them to occupy, afford territory, clear it quickly, establish homes there and move on quickly. They obviously flourished; they had very large families. Their rate of infant mortality, though high by our standards, was low by the standards of the 18th century world -- so that they multiplied rapidly. So their intrepid character was reinforced by good opportunities.
Q: One of those intrepid characters was Joseph
Doddridge. Can you think or tell an anecdote on
Doddridge that builds the character of the frontier ? ?
JW: Doddridge was a small boy on the frontier, and he kept his eyes open. He recorded many years later as a grown man some of its characteristics. I think one of the things that is interesting about Doddridge is the tales he told about ...
WILLIAMS INTERVIEW, TAKE 6, ROLL 52, SOUND ROLL 2
JW: The Jackson I would like most to have know was Elizabeth Cummins Jackson. She was the matriarch. She was a woman who came across the Atlantic on her own, paid her own passage apparently. She married John Jackson in Maryland, moved with him very rapidly across the upper Potomac Valley frontier, and eventually by 1770 into the Monongahela Valley around Buckhannon. En route, she in very difficult circumstances, in addition to establishing new homes, she had ten kids.
I believe they all lived; I'm not sure -- which was unusual at the time. She told her story to her grandson when she was very old. She lived to be one hundred and one. Mostly it was a story of where the migration -- first we lived here, first we lived there. I wish she had told it in how, what life was like for her in the course of that migration. We don't know; we can guess.
SOUND ROLL 3
WILLIAMS INTERVIEW, ROLL 7, TAKE 7, ROLL 53
Q: Jacksons, why ? ?
JW: The Jacksons showed how a family with a lot of energy and ambition could move very quickly from being a settler to being a aristocrat. I think I've used the phrase 'from buckskin to broad cloth.' They moved across the frontier rapidly. By the second generation they were in the seats of power, and they remained there throughout, for another 120 years. Individually, each established a distinctive kind of career, and individually they may not have been that interesting but as a group their accumulation of power and the diversity of activities they undertook marked them as representative of the class of West Virginians that haven't been emphasized enough.
Q: Tell me why they were important as a class of
West Virginians? ?
JW: For one thing we're talking about a place that has two names: West and Virginia. The Jacksons were western and Virginian. If we look at the early part of their careers, their western characteristics -- for that matter if we look at many aspects of their careers -- their western characteristics as Indian fighters in the 1750's or 1770's, as people who carved out new homes in the wilderness, and you go on later and you find them building mills, building foundries, starting improvement companies. In another generation they're involved in the oil business, the coal business, promoting railroads -- they are definitely western. And yet, they're Virginian. They moved to the center of power very quickly. While they become spokesmen at different times for a democratic government, they learned to make the institutions of Virginia work for them. Those institutions in antebellum Virginia are oligarchical.
So the Jacksons become kind of a frontier aristocrat that we haven't acknowledged sufficiently in West Virginia that dominated the first half of the 19th century. They dominated the political and economic life. Well, they held the offices. For example, let's talk about the most famous Jackson, Stonewall Jackson. He's usually presented when we study Stonewall in isolation as a biography, he's presented as poor orphan boy who made his way. If you stop to examine that -- well, how did he make his way? First of all, he grew up in a very comfortable, rural environment at Jackson's Mill, nice land. George Washington would have liked that land, for example. A mill is a piece of capital equipment in an agricultural society. The average person doesn't own a mill -- just that alone.
He held an office at the age of 17. It wasn't a big office, but not every 17 year-old got to be a constable in western Virginia. Then he went to West Point. You just don't go to West Point at any age, but the fact is the Congressman who appointed him to West Point is buried in the family cemetery in Jackson's Mill. The Jacksons took care of their impecunious,? or otherwise peripheral relatives in such way. There was another Jackson who went to West Point, the illegitimate son of John George Jackson. John Jay, Sr. was appointed to West Point by a congressman who was an ally at a time when John George was related by marriage to an ex-president of the United States. misc. talk ...
JW: Do you want me to go back through that again?
Q: Yes, don't stop. ...
WILLIAMS INTERVIEW, TAKE 8
JW: We set up a dichotomy in West Virginia history to justify the separation of West Virginia and Virginia by creating archetypes -- a plantation oligarch and a mountain democrat. The Jacksons bridged those types. They certainly in their political offices worked for democratization of government in the west, and at the same time they made those offices work for them every bit as much as any plantation owner did. That's why I think they're an interesting family. They obviously have energy, ambition, intelligence, and it passed through several generations. They made most of their opportunities, just as Washington had done. In the case of West Virginia, they made the most of the diversity of resources, but they worked within a political system that was uniform 'from the Atlantic tide to Ohio's main,' I think as one poet put it. The state institutions were uniform from across all of Virginia, and they were created by the plantation oligarchy? and the Jacksons made a place for themselves within it. They challenged some aspects, and they exploited it at the same time.
Q: The image I have of the period 1805 to 1850
is a gradual, steady, sure and almost pre-destined
rupture of the land in western Virginia and Virginia?
JW: Sure, we have the image that the rupture between Virginia and West Virginia was inevitable because in fact it happened, and there's a human tendency to make what happened seem inevitable, to read back that chain of causes and not look at alternatives. You have to look at West Virginia history in isolation to believe that. If you look at Tennessee or Illinois or California or Pennsylvania during that period, you'll find sectionalism. You'll find it today in all states, including West Virginia. That sectionalism does not lead to a break because the Constitution provides certain restrictions against it and makes it very difficult. But in almost every state there's a middle one. The two opposite poles start pulling, and the middle one sticks. That's what happened in Virginia. When there was a crisis, it was the valley of Virginia, or places like the Greenbrier Valley that produced people that found compromises. The middle held.
Well, in West Virginia the Civil War came along and it essentially disrupted that middle. It isolated one corner of the state from the corner that was least like it. So the people who were most dissatisfied were in charge in Wheeling; the people who were most indifferent to West Virginia's welfare were in Richmond; the Union army and the Confederate army created a stalemate, which allowed the drawing of the state border in between them. It didn't happen anywhere else, and the reason it didn't is because the Civil War didn't work out that way anywhere else. If the Union army had moved into east Tennessee as swiftly as they did into West Virginia -- and in 1861 these were both geographical expressions -- then east Tennessee would be the name of a state also. But, east Tennessee was separated from the Union army by a lot of Confederate territory; and by the time the Union army got to Knoxville, they already were in the state capital at Nashville. The east Tennessee people who were dissatisfied moved and took over the whole state.
In West Virginia it worked out completely differently. The Union army moved into Wheeling in essentially the second day of their campaign, and they didn't get to Richmond until the end of the war.
Q: Tell me a little bit more about how we'd have
no West Virginia without civil war? How did the
course of the Civil War impact the rising sentiment
JW: The course of the war determined a lot. The invasion was delayed until after the Virginia state elections on May 23, 1861, and then it moved very rapidly -- the battle of Philippi was on June 2, less than two weeks later. Then Rich Mountain which was the decisive battle in northern West Virginia took place on July 11th, I believe. So, within six weeks, northwestern Virginia, that is West Virginia north of the line of the B & O Railroad, had been conquered by the Union army. The Union control was challenged, but it was never dislodged for that reason. Along the Kanawha river, the conquest was slower, but it was no less complete. Again, by the end of the summer of 1861, the two of the three, or rather three of four, population centers of what is now West Virginia were in Union control -- that is, the Monongahela Valley, the Ohio Valley, and the Kanawha Valley.
WILLIAMS INTERVIEW, TAKE 9
Q: What's the significance of the Civil War in
JW: The significance is that without a civil war, there wouldn't have been a state of West Virginia. The reason is that the way that the war played itself out allowed the people that were most interested in creating a new state a safe place to work, the protection of the Union army, and yet cut them off from any serious threat of disruption or retribution from eastern Virginia. The instructive comparison is with Tennessee, where the reverse happened.
Q: ... But the sentiments of the state were quite
JW: That's true. But you see, the sentiments of the state were divided, but sectionalism is in the nature of state and local politics in the United States. You can say that of many, many states at any time in history, including West Virginia. After West Virginia was created, it did not end sectionalism. Yet, northern and southern West Virginia have not divided. But if an army drive a wedge across the middle, you might find people who were sick of other section saying "Hey, this is a good time to split."
Q: Okay, let's roll back in time just slightly. Can
you tell me why we're still so fascinated by John
Brown and Harpers Ferry? What about that story? ?
JW: John Brown was the most dramatic of the episodes that led up to the Civil War. Every school child has been through all of the others, the LeCompton constitution and what-not. But John --
Q: We'll pick that up. What'd you think about that question?
WEST VIRGINIA HISTORY ROLL 4
WILLIAMS INTERVIEW, TAKE 10, ROLL 54
Q: Tell me once again about the Civil War.
Sum it up for me what it really meant?
JW: The Civil War in West Virginia? The Civil War made possible the creation of the state by conquering the critical parts of northwestern Virginia quickly. The Union army provided a safe place for people who were outraged at the succession of Virginia to work to counteract it. The major of those people wanted a new state, not all of them, but the majority did, and the Civil War made it possible for them to achieve that objective.
Q: Why were there so many ??
JW: One of the things that you find in that period is that the great majority of people did not want to take an absolute position. They wanted the problem to go away; but as often happens, in periods that we look back and call great moments in history, in fact public affairs intruded into private lives. They require people to make a choice. You have the case of your David Hunter Strother that went up to the mountains with his new bride and hid out for awhile, hoping to avoid that choice, but eventually rode out and became a Union soldier. You have young men who were mustered into the state militia and not intending to do anything more than parade around and impress their girl friends, but the state militia is called to state service, and within six weeks they're part of the Confederate army.
So, you have a lot of private decisions that are made in response to our crises of public affairs that require them, if they're the right age and the right gender, to make certain kinds of decisions -- to fight or to vote in certain ways -- and they do it. Often reluctantly, and often they back away and change their minds. But that's why in a country like West Virginia you have a very complicated situation although the result is simple. The state was created and the war was won by the North.
Q: Let's go over that in an inverted way. Start
with the specific ? ? and make the general ? ? Tell me
about ? ?
JW: You have a case where an individual is confronted by a crises in public affairs that he would like to avoid because he has his own life to live. In the case of Strother, he had married a bride not too long before the succession crisis broke out -- in fact, during the succession crises. He went on his honeymoon. He went up into the mountains in Morgan County, and essentially laid low. Undoubtedly he was doing a lot of thinking. We know what some of it was; we don't know what all of it was. He rode out, and he made decision. Lots of people had to face a choice like that, one way or another. They made it quickly; they made it slowly; they stuck with it; they backed out of it; but everybody had to make private decisions in response to this crisis in public affairs.
WILLIAMS INTERVIEW TAKE 11
Q: The Civil War's been fought and won, and
now West Virginia's ? ? Tell me about the ? ? West
Virginians started working ? ?
JW: You're talking a process of industrialization that involved once again lots of private decisions that cumulatively added up to a change in the way people live. ... There are a number of individuals whose names that we associate with that change who in their own ...
WILLIAMS INTERVIEW TAKE 12
Q: ... Let's take another stab at West Virginia
boys who rise up and become good, effective
middlemen for industrialization and conglomeration
of West Virginia? ?
JW: By the end of the Civil War, it was apparent that West Virginia had a lot of resources that were then being used in other states to stimulate industrialization. There were people who saw opportunities to make some money. The problem was they needed capital, capital to build the railroads to make it possible to get the coal out, for example. They needed capital to build the sawmills that would enable them to get the lumber out. And we didn't have capital in West Virginia after the Civil War, which was true of the whole Appalachian region. So these guys found capital by essentially trading their influence in West Virginia for a minority share of the profits and trading the majority share for the capital that was needed for development. It's called capitalism and that's how it works. In order to make money you need money. You had to go elsewhere to get the money.
Q: Were the conditions ripe here for them to rise
so quickly ?
JW: The entire country was undergoing an economic expansion, and the resources that West Virginia had were essential to that expansion. They were not rare, but they were important. Coal was found in many other states, and timber was found in many other states; but West Virginia had concentrated supplies of it that could be brought to bear in the national market if the necessary overhead capital was available. It was made available on terms by people outside the state. People inside the state, some of the ones that we could name such as William A. MacCorkle, helped make it available. ... What you got was a hierarchical system of relationships. Somebody like Stephen B. Elkins, for example, who essentially used political capital to gain economic capital, that is he was a territorial politician and used his influence in New Mexico to get a hold of a lot of land there, came east to Congress, married a rich man's daughter, Henry G. Davis' daughter, Hallie.
Then he and Davis used their resources in West Virginia which consisted primarily of undeveloped land and their political resources as United States senators, to acquire more capital from eastern capitalists who had it available who could build the railroads that would enable them to make a profit on their undeveloped land. Then people like Elkins would relate to the civic leaders of smaller places, like Morgantown or Clarksburg or Huntington or Charleston, or whatever, and the people there like MacCorkle or Elliott Northgun? in Huntington, or George Sturgis in Morgantown, would use their local influence, combine their local political influence with modest capital resources, and attract investments from Elkins to bring their businesses on-line.
Q: Did business and politics end up ? more
decline? in West Virginia?
JW: They did in a certain way. It's in the nature of capital --
Q: ? ?
JW: In West Virginia business and politics became intertwined in a way that was not typical of most of the other states. Any economic system depends on access to political power, but West Virginia because it lacked development capital, people were always tempted to use political capital as political influence as a means of gaining of the economic capital, in one way or another. An example of this would be the role that middlemen such as George Sturgis in Morgantown who was a political influential lawyer, a leading local citizen, but not with the kind of capital resources that would enable him to build a railroad.
He made a political alliance with somebody like Stephen B. Elkins, whose political principles he may not have supported in other circumstances. But Elkins, in turn, had access to metropolitan capital, as well as his own. So an alliance between Sturgis and Elkins could lead to something like the railroad that leads up from Deckers Creek from the Monongahela River, that made possible the opening of the coalfield that lies east of Morgantown -- in which the Elkins family was a majority shareholder and Sturgis and other local investors were minority. The B & O, which was a Baltimore firm, and Consolidation Coal Company, which was a majority Baltimore firm, they were the biggest benefactors of all.
Q: How does that relationship change ? ?
JW: The relationship means essentially that the people who run West Virginia are not completely free agents. In the 20th century, that means either that they continue to serve as middlemen for non-resident owners of West Virginia resources or they search for counter-veiling power. They search for institutions that come weld other kinds of power, such as labor unions or the federal government. So you get individuals like John W. Davis or Matthew M. Neely or Henry Hatfield in the Republican party who are not completely independent of the local alliance between political power and economic power but they pursue an independence because they are able to make alliances outside the state with emerging forces such as labor unions or the federal government.
That's one way in which West Virginia in the 20th century becomes more like other states. Particularly federal policies, but also the growth of national institutions such as labor unions that have counter-veiling to corporate influence affects the state and brings it more toward the national mainstream. In the 19th century there's only one other state that puts as many millionaire capitalists in the U.S. Senate, for example, that's Nevada, another mining state with a similar economy, although not with the same kind of population.
WEST VIRGINIA ROLL 5
WILLIAMS INTERVIEW TAKE 13 ROLL 55
JW: ... During the late 19th century it was very common in West Virginia to hear people talk about the 'boundless resources,' and they were boundless; they certainly seemed that way. The problem was that they couldn't be converted to instant capital. You couldn't dig it out of the ground and turn it into money like you could gold in California. So you needed capital to develop these resources and the local people, those local entrepreneurs who had access to resources, didn't have access to the capital. So the question is 'how do you get the capital and on whose terms?' One of the tragedies of West Virginia history, but also one of the inevitabilities was that since the capital couldn't be generated out of earlier economic efforts, it had to be gotten from people outside the state who didn't necessarily have a stake in the overall welfare of the community. It was gotten on their terms, and the local people who facilitated that, the middlemen, they made the best terms available, and the best terms usually included a nice 'cut' for themselves, but not a majority share. They had the minority share. The exceptions to the rule -- people like Henry G. Davis in northern West Virginia -- Justin Collins in southern West Virginia -- where the guys who worked the seams, who worked the interstices between the developments that were dominated by outside capital. Davis did well because of he built a railroad that extended between two larger railroads. He couldn't carry his own coal to the Atlantic seaboard on his own railroad because he didn't have enough to build a railroad all the way from the upper Potomac Valley or the upper Mon Valley all the way to the sea. What he could do is to link up with two different trunk lines and play them off against each other. When that was no longer possible, he had to sell out. Collins did the same thing down in the southern coalfields. That's a tragedy because most of the communities where the people who were economically dominant had a stake in the communities, even lived there personally, they did better than the ones that were run by absentee. In many ways West Virginia was a guinea pig for the whole country's experiment in industrialization. There are plenty of communities, around the developed world now who are waking up and finding that their main local resources are owned by absentee owners, and they're confronting a situation that West Virginia has confronted for over a century.
Q: ? surplus ?
JW: What states do you have in mind?
JW: Alabama of course remained. West Virginia's economic position in the late 19th century improved considerably above what happened in Alabama. But what ... Nevada I can talk about ...
Q: Tell me about this ? ? barter, this middleman
barter, economic power ? ?
JW: One of the things that the local people did, they had political power. Our political system in this country is de-centralized. West Virginia has two senate seats; so does New York. So it was possible to barter one of those West Virginia senate seats essentially for some New York capital. That is exactly what Stephen B. Elkins and Henry G. Davis did. That's stating it crudely, and I would have to defend that over several dozen pages of analysis, but in effect that's what they did. They traded political influence in Washington for economic influence in New York. Now that happened on a smaller scale in every town and every county seat in West Virginia. Local guys who had access to power traded that power for a share, a minority share, of the economic development that was going on. A second impact is the fact that in an economy where the principal industries are extractive industries ...
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is that ... a second connection between business and politics is in an economy that ... in an economy where the principal industries are extractive there is not much an opportunity for white collar professional employment. You either work for the company or you don't. It means you are either one of a handful of white collar workers or you're one of the great mass of blue collar workers. Politics provides an outlet? ? which is why patronage positions, government jobs, ? ? in West Virginia. And that's also one of the reasons that our system of government in West Virginia has not been, shall we say, distinguished. ... There are ... you throw me a curve, new forms, new forms ... I mean, graft is graft and it takes ... I can think of a new form, all right.
Q: ... ? ? [completely inaudible]
JW: No, no, no. That's a good question. I just had to think for a minute. There are a lot of varieties of political graft. The simplest one is selling your vote, or voting over and over again, and that has not been unknown in West Virginia. But that is not at the center of the corruption for which the state has become known. What has happened is that the politically system in one way or another has been used to create economic opportunities for people whose economic ambitions were blocked by the nature of the state's economy. For example, the state house machine, which was the most powerful political organization of the 20th century was based on the control of government jobs. Government jobs multiplied in the middle of the 20th century because government became more important and became involved in nearly every area of life. As long as those jobs weren't regulated strictly by the kind of civil service you would expect to find in a state like Minnesota, for example, they could be traded for some kind of business or economic influence. The man who was at the center of the web of the state house machine in the 1940's and 50's was a man who did not seek the spotlights. His name was Homer Hannah?. I don't believe that Hannah was ever convicted -- I'm sure he was accused -- of doing anything that was strictly illegal. But he made a lot of money selling insurance to the state, and he didn't sell it in an open and free market. He got access to that market because he was the man who made and unmade the slates of the officials that enabled the state house machine to stay in office. Now that's an example of what a 19th century senate called 'honest' graft. It wasn't against the law, but not everybody had a shot at it.
Q: ? ?
JW: West Virginians tried to have it both ways because they're Americans, and they have inherited the American dream. They feel entitled to a full share of the American dream; they see the American dream portrayed and reflected back to them in one way or another in every period of history and they've always wanted their share. They haven't gotten it because of the impediments to full participation in that dream that the nature of the terrain has thrown? up. There's a famous saying, there's a couplet by William Blake that I've quoted: "Great things are done when men and mountains met" but it's a couplet, and the second line is "This is not done by jostling in the street." And what Blake means is it's not done by merchants, it's not done by businessman, it's not done by crowds of people in the city street. Men and mountains do great things in contemplation and isolation and the splendors of nature. And the splendors of nature are often very uneconomical in terms of making a buck.
JW: The most enduring thing that West Virginia has is its scenery, is its land. The second most enduring thing is the people. Precisely because the state has stood slightly apart, significantly apart from the national mainstream, West Virginia is distinctive. Through most period of history the people who have spoken through the state haven't wanted it that way, but it has persisted anyway, in part because their reluctance to face it led them to policies which just made things worse. The state is different; the people are different. They're different in ways that are positive, as well as negative. I think that's the lesson -- that the acceptance of the factors that separate West Virginia from the mainstream and building, plans? on? those? rather than trying to overcome them.
JW: There's a million stories in that answer, but they all add up to something that's summed up by Blake's couplet: "Great things occur when men and mountains meet." Men and women, we should add today. That's in part -- there's an affection for the land. Every individual expresses it and feels it in a different way, but also the land has created a high degree of community in very small communities. It's a state that even when we've industrialized it, remained relatively un-urban. So people are attached to family to community to an extent that we can't imagine, say in a place like southern California. That makes it reluctant to leave and it's a pleasant place to live.