1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy by James Horn


Jamestown has long been associated with tragedy. Of the 104 English sojourners who landed there in the spring of 1607, scarcely more than three dozen lived to see the end of the year. Survivors faced a droughty winter two years later in which they were reduced to eating mice, snakes, and reportedly unearthed corpses to stay alive -- and when they weren't battling the elements, they tormented each other. Draconian governors forced them into work gangs, threatened them with banishment if they didn't work hard enough, cut their tongues out if they blasphemed, and hung them for as little as pilfering an ear of corn. Not without reason did one of those governors, John Smith, declare the place "a misery, a ruin, a death, a hell."

But in a new reflection on that storied cauldron, 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy, James Horn examines an even larger tragedy. In Jamestown -- not in 1607 but about a decade and a half later -- a vision of the common good that rose from the horrors of the first years and might have inspired the subsequent United States was eclipsed by another frenzy of violent scheming. Horn's is a tale of what-could-have-been, and as president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, which supports research and education about the site, he is well positioned to tell it.

His story commences in the middle of 1619 with the remarkable juxtaposition of two events: the establishment of Virginia's first General Assembly and the arrival of its first African slaves. By 1619, the colony's elite had reason to presume its darkest days were behind it. Relations with native neighbors were peaceful, or at least stable, and a new colonial charter made it easier for colonists to acquire private farms and participate in public affairs. The Virginia Company's most important reformer, Edward Sandys, saw in America not only an opportunity for profit but, more importantly, the rough-cut material of a better way for human beings to live. Though no Puritan, Sandys had his own vision of a city on a hill: a land of mutuality between leaders and led, of moral rectitude supplied by the Church of England, and of prosperity borne by an abundance of crops, not just tobacco. In Sandys' aspiration, Virginia may not have been Utopia, but it would have become a commonwealth where men would grow rich not instead of but because of the ways they looked out for one another.

The shattering of that vision was the tragedy. Horn deftly navigates the toxic brew of war and intrigue that destroyed confidence in anything "Democraticall" after 1622 and produced, in many ways, the mirror opposite of Sandys' vision. First came a coordinated attempt by Opechancanough and other natives to drive the settlers into the sea. Then came Parliamentary machinations in England in which Sandys found himself at cross purposes with James I on matters not even pertaining to Virginia. Embattled and discredited, the colony's commonwealth gave way to a government of grandees that twisted the very institutions Sandys gave them into tools of personal enrichment at the expense of a frightened population. Worst of all, came slavery as the "20. and odd Negroes" who arrived in 1619 were joined by thousands of other kidnapped men and women to serve as the colony's labor supply.

Though 1619 may not technically live up to its subtitle -- unlike "American democracy" what was forged at Jamestown was neither democratic nor independence-minded -- that does not matter. Lessons for an age in which winning is everything and the "common good" is nothing are clear enough. Horn reminds modern readers that their forebears' long path toward democracy was crisscrossed by paths not taken, including paths in which prosperity and mutuality were not regarded as mutually exclusive. He invokes a time, however fleeting, when the "common good" did not connote wishful thinking for misty memories but a means toward a better life.

Kip Wedel is an associate professor of History and Politics at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas.