Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Beyond Its Beginning: Our Legacies and Heritage from Jamestown - Part 1

(This the first of nine parts)

Jamestown’s Meaning

Now that Jamestown’s Quatercentenary is history, let’s explore how the first permanent English settlement in America contributed to our national heritage. The past three years brought us a spate of new books and articles that not only reacquaint us with the mid-May 1607 landing and the tribulations of the first permanent English settlement in America, but also offer new evidence of the determination of those settlers to succeed.

Most of these historians’ and popular accounts have told us only the beginning of its story; there has been little mention that it was where some of our nation’s fundamental rights and constitutional principles were conceived and how those early colonists’ consequential actions helped to shape its development, economy and culture. Those rights and principles were nurtured during Jamestown’s nine decades to become among the key beliefs and values on which our nation was founded and has flourished. They remain among our most cherished ideals and ideologies, but how they were established has been generally overlooked.

Understandably, the essays, articles, books and television programs that commemorated Jamestown’s 400th anniversary focused the colony’s beginning years. Some reported on new evidence of the settlers’ lives, diets, attitudes, habits and possessions from the treasure trove of 17th century artifacts that are being unearthed from the archaeological digs of the first James Fort and nearby English and Algonquian settlements. Others described and expanded on American Indians’ customs, practices, polities and mores and their interactions with and among English and Europeans. More has become known about how they, Europeans and Africans also contributed to our nation’s initial history.

Jamestown’s founding, however, has a much deeper meaning than merely being one of our national origins. It was the seminal incident that introduced the opportunities to innovate many profound social, political, and economic tenets that have come down to us through our history. Their lasting effect is what has differentiated Jamestown from other preceding or contemporary English and European settlements in America. It is also where significant ecological impacts were introduced from the British Isles and Europe and the germs of our nation’s most heinous social maladies were incubated, such as institutionalized chattel slavery and the devastation of American Indian life and customs.

Looking Beyond the Beginning

While historians have thoroughly chronicled Jamestown’s first seventeen years, most of them have given us only a glimpse of what was accomplished there. To fully understand that deeper meaning, we need to look beyond that beginning, for, as Professor Warren Billings argues, “…the significance of Jamestown lies beyond [those years]. To be sure, things such as the start of the tobacco economy, the founding of the General Assembly, and the transformation of the colony from a [trading and] military outpost to an agricultural settlement trace their origins to that period, [but] it was in the decades after 1624 that the social, political, and economic implications of those developments played out, and Virginia became a place quite unlike anything the [colony’s] backers envisioned, even in their wildest dreams.” With few exceptions, such as Billings, those chroniclers have almost ignored the extraordinary consequences that the Jamestown settlers fostered for America’s economic and political evolution.

When we look over its nine decades, we realize Jamestown’s crucial place in our history, its contributions to our constitutional republic and how major threads of our heritage were first spun there to be woven into our national fabric. As Professor Jack P. Greene observed, “No longer can scholars think of colonial [history] as something exclusively prenational. Rather historians must recognize that this process has been fundamental to…state building and that it continued long after the initial formation of national states”.

Novel concepts for independence, private property, self-governance and empowerment were devised and established at Jamestown during nearly seventy years of benign neglect of Virginia by England’s rulers, who were focused on their own persistent domestic crises for much of the 17th century. Those concepts’ development was merely slowed by the constraints of new royal policies imposed near the end of that century. They would mature over the following decades to entwine with complementing ideals and visions from New England and other colonies to become embodied in our Constitution.

Jamestown’s Most Important Lesson

So, of what long-term importance is Jamestown as a transformational event in our nation’s history? What legacies has it left us? Why should we care about it, 400-plus years later?

By 1620, or within thirteen years of their landing, Jamestown’s founders had launched several of our most valued rights and privileges. Students learn that it was the site of our first elected representative legislature and beginning of our self-rule, where the free enterprise system became the form of our American economy and English was established as the common language of the new American nation.

However, we should also teach them that it is where those early settlers also confirmed the common citizen’s right to own private property (and its personal importance to us – who are homeowners, for example – since then and today), instigated our real estate industry, validated the principle of common law as the foundation of our own legal system, established civilian control of the military, and fostered new freedoms from English and European customs and traditions that had bound many generations to their ancestors’ trades, classes and economic conditions. Those rights and privileges took root and began to blossom at Jamestown as it established itself and served as Virginia’s colonial capital for almost a century.

We should also instruct that, over its ninety-plus years, they were complemented with additional tenets and principles and the first steps toward our nation's westward expansion, which the immediate descendants of early Jamestown settlers left to us as keystones of our national heritage. Jamestown’s most important lesson is how and why a new people – Americans – learned to govern themselves and came to determine their destiny. The learning of that lesson was the creation and continued enjoyment of our Constitution.

This the first of nine parts
Copyright 2008

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