Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Virginia would become something other than what most Americans tend to think of in relation to localist democracy. But Jamestown, after much painful experimentation, had established the kinds of local institutions, beliefs, and practices that colonizers recognized as the prerequisites to successful settlement and that we have come to recognize as the seedbeds of the American republic.

The Jamestown Project by Karen Ordahl Kupperman, 392 pages, Belknap Press 2009

“Discovery” has been a term and a process more subject to revision than most in recent decades. It was not Christopher Columbus who discovered the New World, we have been told; it was Leif Erikson—or more properly the descendants of the American Indians. This is in an important sense true. Moreover, pointing out this truth is in important ways salutary because it diverts our attention from the subjective act of discovery (discovery for whom?) to the more important process of settlement. Settlement itself is a contested term, of course. Does it mean the spread of a particular culture to new, unsettled parts of the world? Domination of one people by another? Or the beginning of something truly new—of a pioneering offshoot of one culture that reacts to and even brings into itself elements of indigenous ways of life, surrounding geographical elements, and the lessons of pioneering itself?

This last vision pervades Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s illuminating volume, The Jamestown Project. As Kupperman points out, Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607, was far from the beginning of colonization of the New World. Indeed, the relatively backward English were latecomers to the colonization game, lagging far behind the Spanish and Portuguese, in particular. And most observers, this reviewer included, prefer to emphasize the influence of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and other Puritan colonies rather than Jamestown on the development of American institutions and character. Where Jamestown evokes visions of violence, greed, squalor, martial law, and the institutionalization of slavery, Plymouth brings to mind the importance of religious faith, sacrifice, and the striving after virtue in local democratic communities. But history seldom rewards virtue in and of itself, instead smiling on those whose practical mindset spawns an experimental pragmatism and commitment to success before ideals. And it was commitment to success by whatever means necessary that made Jamestown the crucible in which was forged the successful pattern of settlement from which grew the peculiarly American culture of the United States.

Kupperman observes,

through a decade’s trial and error, Jamestown’s ordinary settlers and their backers in England figured out what it would take to make an English colony work. This was an enormous accomplishment achieved in a very short period of time, a breakthrough that none of the other contemporaneous ventures was able to make. The ingredients for success—widespread ownership of land, control of taxation for public obligations through a representative assembly, the institution of a normal society through the inclusion of women, and development of a product that could be marketed profitably to sustain the economy— were beginning to be put in place by 1618 and were in full operation by 1620, when the next successful colony, Plymouth, was planted.

There is a grain of truth to deterministic theories like that of Jared Diamond, whose Guns, Germs, and Steel portrays peoples as the merely lucky or unlucky inheritors of geographical benefits and burdens rooted in the availability of particular forms of livestock, water supplies, and minerals. But that truth— the importance of practical, material assets— is overshadowed by the essential role of cultural patterns for the harnessing, development, and integration of those assets into an effective way of life. Why, after all, did some peoples build lasting civilizations in geographically valuable areas, whereas others were subjugated, driven out, or exterminated by nomadic invaders and/or neighbors? In the end it was emphasis on and inculcation of a particular set of cultural habits that allowed the English colonies, like other societies before them, to flourish, as it arguably led them to rebel against the mother country.

The English were, at best, underdogs in the colonization contest for many decades. Africans frankly looked down on the quality of English goods. Muslims dominated the eastern and southern portions of the Mediterranean, having forged a series of empires stronger than any in Europe, to which adventurous Europeans often felt attracted, and to which some defected despite the requirement of religious conversion. And the New World was dominated by hated Roman Catholics from England’s dreaded national enemies Spain, Portugal, and, to a lesser extent, France

The bulk of Kupperman’s book is taken up with fascinating stories illustrating the difficult position in which England found itself during, in particular, the Elizabethan era, as its rulers sought to increase their prestige and importance on the European continent, capitalize on the opportunities inherent in increasing worldwide trade and gain an empire for themselves. The risks were significant, both for individuals who risked capture, death, and loss of cultural identity, and for the nation-state seeking to compete with larger, more established empires. And England was far from an instant success.

The Jamestown “project” was that of finally establishing a successful English settlement in the New World. By the time Jamestown was founded, the English had attempted colonization everywhere from Canada to South America, suffering dismal failure after dismal failure.

Kupperman spends her early chapters showing the relatively weak position of the English in the newly wide world and illustrating the dangers of engagement. She emphasizes cases in which adventurers lost their identity in other cultures. Some would convert to Islam and adopt “Turkish” ways when captured by Muslims or merely to advance their own careers. Some would “go native” in the New World after being shipwrecked and taken in by local tribes. In either case the result was loss of Englishness— not just abstract political or religious ideas, but the language and the manners of speech and dress seen as essential to individual character among the English at the time. Also dangerous to individual Englishness was the policy of hostage taking and giving, whereby the English, sometimes in exchange for taking tribal leaders’ children back to England, would leave one or two of their own with the indigenous people in order to secure the natives’ friendship. This policy, also aimed at developing increased knowledge of local terrain, language, and trading opportunities, often led hostages to become much more Indian–or rather Seminole or other particular Indian—than English.

The fragility of cultural identity was not the only lesson of England’s early engagement with the wider world. The limits of the military model of expansion were made brutally clear early on. The Iberian powers did not dominate merely South and Central America; they also dominated the Caribbean. And early on the Spanish, particularly through their colony at St. Augustine, Florida also dominated what would become the southern United States. Military-style encampments had been the dominant pattern among the English, who tended to focus on harrying the more successful Spanish, largely for reasons of European politics. But the stunning military successes of the Spanish conquistadors were not repeated by the English. The English lacked the centralized, technologically inferior empires available for relatively swift conquest that provided the Spanish with subject peoples suitable for a military style of colonization. The English also lacked the military élan and brute power of the Spanish at this time. Indeed, on several occasions the Spanish simply destroyed competing English settlements, including on the North American mainland.

Nor were the English able to repeat the French pattern of success through trade. The English lacked the diplomatic skills of the French, along with the availability of large amounts of valuable trade goods (furs) on which the French colonies in North America relied. Where the French made friends and profitable trading arrangements, the English had a habit of making enemies. Indeed, a key weakness of the English colonies was their dependence on trade with the Indians for their sustenance—a trade for which the English settlers had trouble paying, particularly in times of scarcity, and for which they had neither the bargaining skills nor the military superiority necessary to prosecute with success.

As the English attempted to make their mark on this dangerous wider world, they made a variety of efforts at colonization— only one of which was embodied in the three ships and one hundred eight colonists that landed at what would become Jamestown, Virginia. The Chesapeake region was not important because of its special promise— indeed, it had very little promise in the eyes of colonizers. Rather, the area was important because it was available. Farther south any English colony would likely have been wiped out by the Spanish. Farther north, it was thought, any colony would succumb to harsh, killing winter weather. The Chesapeake, however, was swampy, unhealthy, liable itself to harsh winters, and bestrewn with other obstacles, only overcome with difficulty and much trial-and-error.

The royally chartered Virginia Company instructed the initial Jamestown colonists to build a town, plant crops, seek minerals and other valuable goods, find water routes to the interior, and keep the local Indians ignorant of their own weaknesses—especially the inaccuracy of their weapons and their own tendency to grow sick and die. This was far too onerous a set of instructions, resting on far too optimistic a set of assumptions, particularly given the insufficiency of their food stores, the drought, and the subsequent long, cold winter the settlers had to endure. Within six months all but thirty-eight Jamestown colonists had died from disease, violence, and famine. And the remaining settlers, having alienated the local Indians on whom they relied for food with the harshness of their bargaining and other interactions, found themselves cut off from voluntary trade and subjected to guerrilla warfare.

The Jamestown settlement had been reduced to misery and despair. And, while Captain Smith claimed to have held the colony together through his short-lived regime of martial law and his aggressive bargaining parties, there was no improvement in sight. By May 1610 Smith had been sent packing, and Jamestown’s local leaders had decided to abandon the colony. Only the unexpected arrival of massive supplies and reinforcement prevented Jamestown’s utter failure and dissolution.

Unfortunately for the colonists, the Virginia Company learned the wrong lessons from the disastrous experience of Jamestown’s beginning. They determined that what was required was absolute power in the hands of their appointed governor, wielded so as to rule every aspect of colonists’ lives and, with harsh punishments, the central means of enforcement. Despite constant resupply of goods and new colonists, the results were terrible and deadly for several more years. Only with the development of wiser policies, focused on bringing in women and families and establishing land ownership and local representation, along with the development of improved strains of tobacco for export to England, did the colony finally find its footing and begin to succeed.

The Virginia Company, mired in corruption and mismanagement (though not so badly as had been rumored), was dissolved in 1624, but Jamestown finally had established a pattern of life and governance that would work for the English in America: devolution. Colonists increasingly had been ceded greater control over their own destinies through land ownership, local representative government, and family formation. The results were increased productivity, decreased mortality and dissension, and the eventual flourishing of the colony.

Given Smith’s identification with martial law, it is fitting that Kupperman gives him the final word on what would work in America:

His central theme, the sum of all experience thus far, was that colonization succeeded only where each family had a stake in the outcome and where merchants rather than aristocrats did the planning. He counseled New England’s leaders “not to stand too much upon the letting, setting, or selling those wild Countries, nor impose too much upon the commonality . . . for present gain.” Rather, they should weld colonists to the project by giving each man as much land as he could reasonably manage for “him and his heires for ever.”

By transferring control to America and fostering colonists’ own initiative, the English finally were able to succeed as a colonial power; Jamestown was the starting point for this pattern. And that pattern would be central to the developing character of the American colonies—of their forms of self-government, their social practices, and even the attitudes and practical habits of what was becoming the American people.

The phrase “benign neglect,” so commonly used to describe the British government’s policy toward its North American colonies prior to the mid-eighteenth century, is unfortunate. That term, accurate insofar as it describes the results of British colonialism in its American colonies, nonetheless radically de-emphasizes the policy’s intentionality. British authorities and the well-connected leaders of royally chartered companies settled on devolution as a preferred mode of colonial governance after much practical experience with a variety of less successful strategies. And devolution worked for the empire as much as for the colonies. It increased the power and wealth of the British nation by emphasizing one aspect of its political tradition—localism—in a manner calculated to serve another—aggressive expansionism. The end result, of course, was constitutional crisis and separation. But then very few colonies remain such in perpetuity. Moreover, the policy was beneficial to both colonies and mother country, not only in terms of power and wealth, but also in the development of constitutional structures and political cultures suitable for the promotion of ordered liberty. In particular, the growth or resuscitation of a multiplicity of authorities, with loyalties being divided among local associations, provincial governments, and the larger empire, fed attitudes, institutions, and practices emphasizing the importance of relatively self-sufficient, property-owning individuals acting within a variety of groups, thus staving off centralization.

Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Virginia would become something other than what most Americans tend to think of in relation to localist democracy. Wealth increasingly was concentrated into the hands of a few wealthy plantation owners. Slavery was institutionalized very early and, though opposed at various times and almost abolished, would come to pervade Virginia’s social and economic structures. And settlement patterns, spawned in large measure by the English Civil War, brought increasing numbers of aristocrats, along with their retainers and impoverished dependents, to Virginia. This last development in particular helped produce a local culture increasingly at odds with the less class-based norm in colonies to the north. But Jamestown, after much painful experimentation, had established the kinds of local institutions, beliefs, and practices that colonizers recognized as the prerequisites to successful settlement and that we have come to recognize as the seedbeds of the American republic.

Republished with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Summer 2008).

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