Politics and Broomstraw.

February 12, 1870


The improvement of industry is essential to the future of Virginia's economy.


Sweet are the reminiscences of the days that are gone. Delightful are the gay pictures of the life that is past. But to make their contemplation the occupation of the mind is to become a drone and a nuisance. No man who turns his face to the past and makes it an object of worship can be any longer of use, and it were better for him that be were dead and buried. The past is indeed to be remembered with affection and in part with admiration. But, for present uses, it can only be made available by improving upon it when we can, and wasting no time in idle lamentations for our inability to reproduce what was good in it that is past redemption. The institution of slavery stamped certain peculiarities upon the public character of Virginia. It gave a direction to capital (the gains of industry) hostile to manufacturing, mineral development, and general improvement of highways and means of transportation. Wealth was naturally absorbed in the vocation preferred by the people-agriculture, more land, and more negroes. Advancement in the arts was of course retarded in such a state of society, commerce found little encouragement, wealth was not rapidly accumulated, and the country furnished no such signs of thrift as are met with in communities where labor is diversified and the mechanical arts are prosperous. Another feature was the public devotion to politics. Men of means had leisure their chief study was politics and their chief ambition political dignity. A community of statesmen, whose domestic interests were all confined to agriculture, naturally were averse to much government and earnest advocates of simplicity and economy in its administration. The taking of money for public improvements was not much favored by gentlemen educated and situated as they were. Their talents were devoted to the science of government, and their own personal promotion to its honors. The cause of improvement struggled through lung years with but partial success in Virginia, and when it did succeed it was only through a system of log-rolling-the combination of many local interests in the appropriation of public money alike to bad and to good schemes-that it triumphed. Such a triumph was a calamity to the State. For one dollar appropriated to works deserving the aid of the State several were voted to others that were worthless. Thus the State has been subjected to an enormous debt for a system of works that is badly devised-conferring no such benefit upon the State as the expenditure should have secured-and which is yet incomplete. This was all due to the political turn of the minds of the public men and their devotion to party feeling and their personal ambition. They studied not the physical development and growth of their State. Days, months, and years, were devoted by great men to partisan studies and discussions, and to their own personal advancement, who never gave an hour to the promotion of any great work calculated to increase the population or wealth of their State. Slavery is dead, and we are in the beginning of a new political dispensation, which must change the tendencies of the public mind, the occupation of statesmen, and the whole face of the country, unless, indeed, there be something so deeply seated in the Virginian character as to defy the powerful causes which now war upon the ancient spirit and habits of the State. We cannot, however, see that successful resistance to these causes for any long period of time is possible. They must gradually work a great change. Public men must devote themselves to the practical interests of society. The death of slavery will increase the variety of occupations introduce a closer and more careful system of tillage-the desire for much surface of land will be lessened-farmers will better cultivate smaller areas, and will be unwilling to pay taxes on land that yields no profit. The gains of agriculture, instead of being devoted to buying land and slaves, will be invested in stocks or improvements of lands and buildings, thus increasing the capital for trade and improvement, and promoting the thrifty appearance of the country. Thus will the resources of the Commonwealth be greatly increased, and its weight in the national councils become greater by its growth in population. Now, this new order may indeed be delayed, but cannot ultimately be prevented. The delay may be occasioned by the agitations of those who are unable or unwilling to give up their old occupations-men who have lived upon political excitement and the places secured by party service. These will be unable to sink the issues of days by-gone, and will endeavor to revive them. Their agitation can only disturb the public peace and retard the public improvement. Their whole theory and political practice tends to a shackling industry and a reckless domestic economy: to "broomstraw." They will only make bad worse, diminish the sources of public revenue, and increase the private embarrassments. Against such agitations-such fruitless and hopeless efforts to restore the past -the public sentiment should be irrevocably fixed. The revolution that has begun is inevitable, and to delay its progress would lie to increase our troubles to no good end. We should go ahead and facilitate the change by every means in our power. Let us have improvement in all sorts of industry -the rapid development of the mineral wealth of the State-and the steady increase of her wealth and population. And by no means let us go back an inch towards the old systems-to wasteful tillage-the holding of profitless lands-politicians and broomstraw.
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Charles Simmonds




“Politics and Broomstraw.,” Reconstructing Virginia, accessed July 4, 2022, https://reconstructingvirginia.richmond.edu/items/show/1593.