Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Beyond Its Beginning: Our Legacies and Heritage from Jamestown - Part 7

Jamestown’s Final Years

The last quarter of the 17th century would prove to be Jamestown’s final years as the seat of the colonial government. Berkeley’s governance policies that fostered Virginia’s independent self-rule and his advocacy of free trade put him at odds with the increasingly restrictive imperial policies of the newly restored crown. He was aging and also found himself contending with a restive element of lesser Virginians who began to chafe under the increasing power ambitions of the great plantation owners who, being in Berkeley’s circle, dominated the Old Dominion’s politics and economy. A group of rebellious colonists led by Nathaniel Bacon, a relatively new settler, took issue with the governor’s policies for land grants and acquisition and dealing with continuing Indian raids on their settlements, which quickly degenerated into Virginia’s (and America’s) first, albeit brief, civil war, when they seized and burned Jamestown and its statehouse in 1676.

The result was a show of imperial military force from London and Berkeley’s sacking, plus increased royal control and succeeding governors who “…were determined to bend the Virginians to their sovereign’s wishes”. They were unable, however, to pressure the councilors and burgesses into restructuring the colony with urban or town centers, or move quickly to fund the reconstruction of the statehouse. Nevertheless, it was eventually rebuilt (and became “…the largest secular public building in 17th century America”), but burned again in 1698.

By 1700, Virginia’s capital was relocated to Williamsburg, about eight miles away. The change was profound, as Jamestown was the colonial capital, and, as historian Daniel Richter tells us, “Williamsburg was designed to be an imperial capital. The place actually symbolizes everything the Founding Fathers set out to replace…Its Governor’s Palace embodied royal majesty; its Capitol…symbolized the balance of aristocratic and democratic, imperial and provincial, power…These and other imperial associations were one reason the republican revolutionaries moved their government to Richmond and left Williamsburg a virtual ghost town until its twentieth century tourist rebirth”.

The major impact of the new gubernatorial regimes was a subordination of the House of Burgesses and new constraints and diminishment of its powers. Billings tells us that the Bacon-led “revolt also awakened [Virginians] to the lesser planters’ discontents and the need to ensure that such rancor would never again burst into rebellion. [That policy would be effective for almost 100 years.] All acknowledged an intrusive crown for what it was, a threat to the General Assembly and the great planters’ dominance of it”.

The colonists, retaining the memory of their taste of virtually independent self-government during the interregnum, continued stubborn but steadfast resistance to the imperial efforts to emasculate their capacity to govern themselves. The end of the Stuart reign and England’s Glorious Revolution (1688) signaled the crown’s increased efforts to tighten colonial control. However, the Crown’s vice-regents “…failed to achieve Stuart visions of empire. They hedged the General Assembly, and just as it stood at the breaking point, the downfall of James II and accession of William and Mary directed the empire builders’ attentions elsewhere. From the 1690s onward, the Assembly’s quest for power was as much a striving to recover lost ground as to claim new terrain.”

Rights and privileges similar to those conceived and confirmed initially at Jamestown were also adopted in other, simultaneously evolving colonial constitutions. Their pursuit and enjoyment were to create political tensions that would increase with the decades of the 18th century. The Virginia colonists saw their established and inherent rights as Englishmen, as well as those they had acquired during the ninety years of Jamestown’s existence, increasingly beleaguered; their constitutional struggles with the crown and parliament persisted as the century wore on. Those tensions and struggles, also experienced by fellow Americans in New England and other colonies, would eventually escalate into our Revolution.

By the late 17th century, Jamestown was no longer serving as Virginia’s primary port as facilities in other riverside communities were developed. With both its economic and political functions reduced, it was eventually abandoned during the 18th century and reverted to farmland, which, with the exception of a lone mid-17th century brick church tower, covered the remains, buildings and artifacts of those who had established and sustained it for nine decades.

This is the seventh of nine parts; next: The Virginia Diaspora.
Copyright 2008

No comments: