Sunday, November 27, 2011

Why Jamestown Was The Secret To Success

On reading Peter Mancall’s op-ed in the 11/22 edition of Bloomberg, we thought it was worth revisiting the following piece by Professor Karen Kupperman, which appeared in the Washington Post at the 400th anniversary of the landing at Jamestown:

America's Founding Fictions
By Karen Ordahl Kupperman
Washington Post
Sunday, May 13, 2007; B02

The colonists landed, short of food and supplies, after a long and harrowing transatlantic voyage. The initial exploring party stole a large quantity of corn that the Indians had carefully stored away for the hard winter. They then dug up some graves, looted items that had been buried with the dead and ransacked Indian houses. Furious fighting with the natives soon ensued. Once they had selected a site for their settlement, the migrants endured a winter of death in which they lost more than half their number.

Ah, of course, you're thinking -- Jamestown. All that looting and fighting and stealing and death. It's the creation story from hell. But think again.

That description is not of the troubled Virginia colony settled by a group of men popularly derided, then and now, as the scum of the Earth. Rather, it depicts the arduous first days of Massachusetts's Plymouth colony, our favorite myth of the nation's founding.

These aren't the kinds of events we remember the Pilgrims by, even though the description is drawn from their own words. Instead, our national mythmakers have accentuated the positive to carve the story of the pious Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving out of Plymouth's more complicated, less pure beginnings. In contrast, the earlier Jamestown colony, whose 400th anniversary we commemorate tomorrow, is depicted as a saga of unrelieved degradation and failure, relegated to second-tier status in the history books. But it shouldn't be.

American history today begins with the Pilgrims because their experience in Plymouth has been molded to offer a more acceptable foundation story than the exploitative dog-eat-dog world of the early Chesapeake. The Puritans' arrival in Boston, where they built John Winthrop's "city on a hill," clinched it for Massachusetts.

The Pilgrim story took over as our founding fiction after the Revolutionary War, when New England and the South began to pull in different directions. The Massachusetts colonists were labeled the Pilgrim Fathers in the 1790s, and the agreement they signed on arrival became the Mayflower Compact about the same time. Because Puritanism had come to be seen as repressive (think of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter"), early American leaders such as Daniel Webster brought the Plymouth colonists forward as the kinder, gentler Puritans.

This is the origins story we prefer and the one we promote. We prefer it because we like to think that we are descended from a humble and saintly band, religiously motivated and communal in organization, who wanted nothing more than the freedom to worship God. The individualistic, grasping capitalists of Virginia offer much less appealing antecedents.

Encasing our national founding in a myth of immaculate conception feeds the assumption that the United States is unlike other nations, that it acts in the world only to serve the greater good. Sometimes it even makes the connection directly. Two days before Thanksgiving 2004, U.S., Iraqi and British troops began a major offensive south of Baghdad. The name chosen for the campaign? Operation Plymouth Rock.

But America's true founding story is much more interesting and much more real. All early colonies had tremendous difficulties becoming established. The reports sent home from Jamestown were overwhelmingly dismal; it was all harder than anyone had expected, and everyone had different ideas about how to proceed.

Dismayed by the high death rate and the disorder of Jamestown's first couple of years, the colony's London sponsor, the Virginia Company -- a kind of early venture-capital outfit -- decided to compel the settlers to be virtuous. It imposed the most severe martial law, regulating every aspect of life to force the men to work for the collective interest. The death penalty was ordered for almost any infraction. If civic virtue could be achieved by force, the Virginia Company was going to do it.

In fact, martial law did stabilize the colony (although many ran away to take up life with the Chesapeake Algonquins). But it couldn't foster true community development or create a thriving economy. Yet over the next several years, some colonists and backers came up with a different approach -- and laid the foundations for what America is today. They substituted incentives for iron control. The land was divvied up among the colonists; a representative assembly gave landowners control of taxation; women were recruited as wives for planters; and the professional soldiers were removed.

And voila. The colony began to grow. To get a stake in this new society, young men and women were willing to take on the burden of working as indentured servants for a number of years.

The new design was in place by 1619, 12 years after the first colonists arrived. Life was still hard and major conflict with the Indians soon came, but the essential elements of success were in place. Every colony from that point forward followed the Jamestown pattern. The Pilgrims, who came in 1620, began as a communal experiment, but within four years, they, too, demanded division of the land and began to disperse into family groups.

Americans ever since have moved across the country in pursuit of the dream of land ownership, the innovation inaugurated on the James River. And they have prided themselves on the ingenuity that also surfaced first in Jamestown, where John Rolfe defied the odds by learning how to produce a marketable tobacco crop that became the colony's gold.

Of course, there was a tragic downside, as there is to many success stories. As colonists north and south hacked their farms out of the wilderness, they ruined the Indians' agricultural and hunting economy and forced the natives off their land. And ownership of property soon extended to ownership of labor, as Native Americans and imported Africans were enslaved in both New England and the South.

The truth of our history is that it produced winners and losers. Our founding is not a storybook Pilgrim fable. It's something hardier and more complicated. And it's reflected in Jamestown's great accomplishment: that it was the place where English men and women worked through the messiness of real life in dire circumstances and found the secret to success in building a society -- giving everyone a stake in the outcome.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman is a professor of history at New York University and the author of "The Jamestown Project."

© The Washington Post 2007

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