Saturday, September 27, 2008

Beyond Its Beginning; Our Legacies and Heritage from Jamestown - Part 4

Jamestown’s Earliest Legacies

To spur colonial agriculture, the Company introduced a policy of granting 100 acres (known as “headrights”) to each of those settlers who had arrived before 1616, paid their own passage and remained for three years (known as “ancient planters”); they were also granted another 50 acres for each person for whom they paid passage. Later settlers and colonial landowners received 50 acres’ headrights as incentives for underwriting the immigration of more laborers and settlers. The Company also made similar grants to its investors in lieu of a dividend that it was unable to pay from profits. These became the New World’s first land patents (or deeds in our modern vernacular) owned by common citizens, instead of by the crown, aristocracy or Church, as had been the time immemorial practice in Europe and England. By 1623 – only 16 years after the first Jamestown settlers had arrived – all landholdings were converted to private ownership.

The Company also succumbed to the inefficiencies of its policy of centralizing the trading of needed commodities, imports and exports solely through its “magazines” (conceptually similar to company-owned stores). In 1620, it freed the colonists to seek and trade for their own needs with whomever they desired, giving birth to the free enterprise system.

By then, they also had started our real estate industry, as land ownership, investing and transactions among common citizens became one of the essential elements and basic drivers of the colony’s and what would be our future nation’s economy. This would become an important pool of capital for future American economic independence.

After seven years of tension, rapprochement and frequent violence, a tentative peace between the settlers and the Powhatans (the Algonquian Tidewater tribal federation) stemmed from the abduction and 1614 marriage between the renowned native princess Matoaka (“Pocahontas”) and John Rolfe, the creator of the new Virginia tobacco blend, who were literally the parents of the new tobacco industry.

The Algonquian culture included successful tobacco farming and it seems certain that the Powhatans assisted the colonists in securing Jamestown’s economic survival and assuring Virginia’s permanence. The promise of success of this new industry encouraged the Company to send more settlers, including the first groups of women, which gave the colony a new foundation of families for its long-term continuity and growth.

At the same time, Jamestown’s remote governance – at least a six to ten weeks’ voyage from London – was proving unfeasible. In 1619, the Company authorized the colony to elect a representative legislature – the General Assembly – that would enable the settlers to manage their local affairs and finances and govern themselves more effectively and expeditiously. It was composed of “burgesses” elected by each of the colony’s settlements, the Company’s royally appointed governor and a council of state (appointed councillors, or advisors). Almost all male colonists (“every free man and company tenant”) were enfranchised from the Assembly’s creation in 1619 until 1670, when property ownership became a voting qualification (and would remain so, in Virginia, for almost another two hundred years).

1622 and the following two years brought matters to a head and set the stage for a major change in the colony’s status and structure. There had been major dissatisfaction with the Virginia Company’s policies and lack of business success and profits for some time. The potential for Virginia’s opportunities was also apparently beginning to dawn on the crown and the rest of the English establishment, despite James I’s abhorrence of tobacco.

In March 1622, the Powhatans and their allies mounted a well-planned and coordinated surprise attack throughout the colony to drive the English from their ancestral homelands that shattered the tenuous eight-year peace and left over a quarter of the settlers dead. The score of outlying plantations were decimated but warnings spared Jamestown itself.

The effect of the assault on the colony was not unlike that of the terrorists’ plane crashes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon almost four centuries later. The news of this catastrophe was one of the final blows for its private backers. New settlers who then arrived on the Abigail from London in spring 1623 introduced a virulent epidemic that killed more settlers than the Powhatan raids, which helped to precipitate the Virginia Company’s demise. There was a realization that less than one of six had survived of about 7,000 of those who had emigrated to establish Virginia.

The End of the Beginning

These were chief among the factors that brought about the commission of a royal inquiry, the revocation of the Company’s charter and its dissolution in 1624. James I died in March 1625 without resolving the colony’s status and was succeeded by his son, Charles I, who made Virginia a crown province. The Virginia Company’s investors were wiped out with a loss estimated at over £200,000 (as valued at the time, or the 2007 equivalent of over $27,000,000). The new monarch soon reaffirmed the colonists’ land ownership rights, but not their elected legislature, creating uncertainty for it. The crown’s governors then ruled Virginia for the next one hundred fifty one years, except for two brief spans.

Jamestown was followed by the English settlements and colonies in Massachusetts in 1620 and Maryland in 1634. The Dutch also had established New Amsterdam in 1624 (which, about forty years later, became New York). Free enterprise began to thrive as Virginians were shipping 300,000 pounds of tobacco annually by 1627 and soon were establishing active trade relations with those settlements, England and Europe.

Jamestown remained the colonial capital after 1624, but the life of the colony began flowing out into the ever-growing tobacco plantations owned by increasingly wealthy settler families, who began to be joined slowly by English aristocracy who saw new fortunes in the Tidewater. The agrarian form of Virginia’s economy did not foster the growth of towns and cities, as in New England, but efforts to further the development of Jamestown continued. A new colonial administration resolved to center trade there in 1631–32, but other attempts to centralize economic and local governmental functions would not succeed because of the population dispersion throughout the plantations.

The Assembly, in the absence of royal direction, soon resumed managing local fiscal policies and law making, administration and adjudication, filling a political vacuum that neither the governor nor his councilors could. This concept of local governance was adopted by other colonies for similar reasons and set a precedent for their own lawmaking and fiscal capacities, enabling them to be self-reliant. These capacities would become the touchstone for their mutual independence with Virginia in the following century.

The Assembly also created local governing bodies (that would become counties) and, in 1634, they adapted the English county court system to more effectively and locally administer law, which evolved into a major feature of the American jurisprudence structure. In addition, the concept of geographical legislative representation also appeared as the colonial government matured, for “Here was a custom created by local magistrates aiming to control local affairs that fostered a later American idea of the representative as a person whose personal obligation lay with the voters of the district. Such an accidental development diverged from the seventeenth century English understanding”.

Charles I finally reaffirmed the Assembly in 1639, which legitimated and began the ascendancy of an elected representative legislative body that would breed a major feature of our own new constitution almost fifteen decades later. Also, by 1639, Virginia-born councillors had also exerted their influence to oust an unpopular governor, which “opened the door to the rise of the colony’s ruling classes…Their achievements typified the emergence of a native ruling class that in some ways resembled England’s.”

The newly minted crown province or dominion continued to expand and develop. Within a generation, though, its social structure began to change into a more highly stratified class system. Some colonists found that it offered opportunities for economic and class betterment that were unavailable to them in England and furthered the new arrangement, but others found it too similar to the one they had escaped.

This is the fourth of nine parts
Copyright 2008

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