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Ken Plum: Virginians leading the nation

In the late 1990s the state teachers’ organization distributed a hopeful poster. With scenes from Monticello and colonial Virginia printed in the background, the text proclaimed that “Virginians led the Eighteenth Century, Virginians can lead the Twenty-first Century.”

There is a plentiful supply of documentation of Virginians providing leadership in the Revolutionary period through the formation of our Nation. Virginian Thomas Jefferson put in words in the Declaration of Independence the case for freedom of the colonies from the Mother Country and also the notion of natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Along with James Madison he helped to design a nation of “we the people” rather than a confederation of states. Virginian George Mason insisted on a Bill of Rights as part of the new country’s constitution, and history is replete with examples of the wisdom of his leadership. Virginian George Washington took the helm of the new government, but even as he was wildly popular chose to step down from leadership rather than to proclaim himself king or dictator as the patterns of past history may have suggested for him to do. Virginian Jefferson became our third president followed by his neighbors Madison and James Monroe, making Virginians four of our first five presidents. Virginian John Marshall gave form to our Supreme Court

From that surge of leadership with the formation of our country, Virginia fell rapidly from its position of providing national leadership. Historian Susan Dunn in her book Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison and the Decline of Virginia (Basic Books, 2007) found that unlike the men of the founding generation, Virginians who inherited the Revolution were “spellbound by the myth of aristocratic, gracious plantation life, they waged an impossible battle against progress and time itself.”

The designers of the teachers’ poster were hoping that Virginians might reassert themselves and provide leadership to the Nation by an investment in public education. Their wishes have not come true. Each year there is a struggle in the legislature to prevent any further erosion of education funding. But Virginia names are being mentioned nationally in a way that hardly brings favor to the state. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has gained national notoriety for his attack on academic freedom at Mr. Jefferson’s University and for his actions against the new federal health care law. Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor as majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives gets national attention daily with his grimaces, sneers, and “just say no” approach to budget and deficit negotiation.

Virginians need to step forward and show national leadership of the style of Virginia’s earliest years, not like what we have seen lately.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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