Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Jamestown Settlement: Planting a Nation Where None Had Stood Before

This week's U.S. News cover story on the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, came with perfect timing. My copy arrived in my mailbox last night, just in time to look over and digest before my lecture today on America's colonial background and revolutionary heritage. I shared the copy with class, noting that U.S. history dates back quite a while, not just from 1787 and the constitutional convention, but to this earlier era of exploration and settlement. Here's a segment from the article's introduction:

Thirteen years before the Mayflower brought Pilgrims to Massachusetts, the Virginia colony served as England's toehold on a continent eventually inhabited and governed mostly by English-speaking people. History books list Jamestown, founded in 1607, as America's first permanent English settlement, and its 400th anniversary will be celebrated this year with festivals, exhibits, and commemorative coins, plus a springtime visit by Queen Elizabeth II. But that success in Virginia was not the piece of cake it first was billed to be. For years, Jamestown was a deadly fiasco, periodically in peril and ultimately revived and enriched by cultivation of a habit-forming weed and the toil of indentured whites and enslaved blacks.

In Europe's race to colonize the New World, England started late. For nearly a century after 1492, the English watched with envy as Spain dominated much of the hemisphere that Columbus discovered. In 1587, two decades after the Spanish settled St. Augustine in Florida, the English abandoned their insular ways and planted 110 men, women, and children on Roanoke Island off present-day North Carolina. When a supply ship returned later, all were gone. Even now, no one knows what became of that "Lost Colony."

Sir Walter Raleigh, the favorite courtier of Elizabeth I, reportedly lost 40,000 pounds on the venture. His reward, granted in advance, was knighthood and the Virgin Queen's permission to name the new land Virginia, in her honor. They envisioned Virginia as every place north of Mexico that the English could take and occupy.

Despite the costs and setbacks, pressures mounted for another expedition. English traders imagined colonists producing wine and olive oil, harvesting timber, and uncovering gold. Others saw Virginia as an ideal home for the poor. England's population was rising rapidly, but jobs were stagnant. Ministers noted that God ordered man to multiply and fill the Earth. What better place to do so than the vast and—as they perceived it—empty continent across the sea?
It's a nice piece. I particularly liked the article's balanced retelling of Jamestown's founding, and it's very substantial difficulties. The article is free from the radical, anti-colonial ideology one would get from left-wing activist professors. Indeed, the piece is clear that the Virginia settlers might not have made it without help from the Native Americans. Also, local chieftan Powhatan comes off as a rational opportunist, making friends with the newcomers when it fit his interests, and opposing them when it became clear that the colony's growth threatened the sovereignty and survival of his community.

Writing this post reminds me of an earlier entry -- from last Thanksgiving --
citing Betsy Newmark's holiday post, where she gave thanks for the great freedoms we enjoy, and suggested that we delve in and learn more about our phenomenal heritage. The U.S. News piece is a well-done journalistic diversion along those lines. In that earlier post I also cited Schweikart and Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States as an example of the kind of historical literature that might help one better appreciate our past, warts and all.

(Editorial Note: Lest any leftist radicals become offended, this post's title is a play on the words of an early Jamestown ballad, cited in the article's conclusion: "Wee hope to plant a nation / Where none before hath stood." Certainly, the American Indians had a nation in the lands of the future Virginia settlement; they simply weren't able to defend their nation and indigenous civilization from the coming of the American nation-state.)

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