In the Nation's Backyard

In the Center's most recent research roundtable, Professor Brian Balogh spoke about his forthcoming book In the Nation's Backyard: How History Preserved Rural Life in Green Springs, 1970 to the Present. The book tells the story of citizen participation in an unlikely setting - rural Virginia in the 1970s, and the battle to fight a maximum security state prison facility, then vermiculite mining by WR Grace, and now, exurban sprawl, in MY own backyard, Louisa County, VA.  The preservationists won this one, at least for the moment. They created a national historical landmark district, reinforced by an Act of Congress, in the mid-seventies.  Along the way, they pursued path breaking federal litigation and made the most of the growing demand for citizen participation that was sweeping the country.  This is also a story of changing gender roles, as the leader who forged this history was a woman who did not have a college degree.

Both her enemies and allies in high places were virtually all men. But most of all, this is a story of how history was reconceptualized and actively deployed to preserve Green Springs, which for hundreds of years, had never been perceived to be historic at all by public officials or many citizens.  The potent combination of changing conceptions of history, from an emphasis on great men to a broader interest in ways of life and the environment that sustained these folk ways, the penetration of the national government into even the sleepiest rural counties, gender, and the rapidly changing conceptions of governance in the nineteen-seventies along with an innovative mechanisms that relied upon conservation easements to provide government protection for private land, preserved these 14,000 acres currently administered by the National Park Service.  Along the way to this victory, however, the very meaning of what it meant to be a liberal changed.  Those citizens who advocated for development - first of the prison, then the mine, then finally suburban housing and golf courses - were pursuing many of the core values that unified liberals during the New Deal and subsequent two decades of liberal dominance.

In the nineteen-seventies, they suddenly found themselves cast as conservative, even reactionary, for advocating the very kind of government-subsidized economic development that Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson would have loved. Indeed, the story is yet more complex, as the prison facility was intended to serve as a diagnostic center - geared towards offering the chance for rehabilitation to every prisoner incarcerated by the state.

Brian Balogh is the Compton Professor at the Miller Center and Professor of History at the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. Balogh is the author of The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, Politics and Culture in Modern America Series, 2015) and A Government out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and recently edited, with Bruce Schulman, Recapturing the Oval Office: New Historical Approaches to the American Presidency (Cornell University Press,  2015). Balogh is the co-host of Backstory with the American History Guys, a nationally syndicated radio show that appears on Public Broadcasting Stations across the country and via podcast on ITunes. Balogh founded and currently directs the Miller Center National Fellowship Program which has funded 135 dissertation completion fellowships for scholars studying American politics and public policy from an historical perspective. Balogh is the recipient of the American Historical Association’s 2015 Nancy Lyman Roelker Award honoring those "who taught, guided, and inspired their students in a way that changed their lives."