Shamestown

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 05/09/07

Why don’t Americans embrace the legacy of Jamestown, replacing it instead with the landing thirteen years later at Plymouth?  That’s the question asked by Manan Ahmed in this month’s Cliopatria symposium.  I have no particular historical expertise on the subject, but that’s never stopped me before, and won’t now.  Instead, I’ll address the question from a cultural perspective.

Simply put, there’s little in the Jamestown tradition for Americans to be proud of.  The settlers were sent over by the Virginia Company, a blatantly capitalistic venture whose goal was to find gold in a place it didn’t exist.  The settlers rooked and almost went to war with the local Indians, nearly died off their first winter because they didn’t know how to find food, and ended up ensuring their long-term survival through what’s become the least-politically-popular staple crop in North America: tobacco.  The only even remotely likable figure among the colonial founders, adventurer John Smith, was a well-known liar and braggart who may not even have done all that stuff he said he did, and who went home in a huff after the leaders of a rival cabal tried to assassinate him.  Pocohontas, despite Disney rumors to the contrary, actually did travel to England, only to die of European diseases that would eventually ravage the remainder of her people.

Contrast this with the “higher” motivations of Plymouth — instead of seeking gold, the colonists set sail in search of religious toleration; instead of warring among themselves, the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact and learned to work together for the good of the community; instead of exploiting the native peoples, the Pilgrims invited them over for Thanksgiving (though the reality in both settlements is quite a bit more complex than that).  There’s simply no question about it.  Who wants to be founded by a nation of warring and unsuccessful adventurers when they could be spawned by God-fearing community-builders?  (Okay, the Australians in the room can put their hands down now.)

But looking beyond the obvious, there’s a larger and more interesting point to be gleaned from the shouldering-aside of Jamestown in favor of Plymouth.  Jamestown, if it stands for anything, embodies a the profoundly capitalistic and individualistic aspect of the American spirit: the union of venture capital in the Virginia Company and the adventurer in John Smith.  Plymouth, on the other hand, stands for the religious and communitarian face of the American character: zealous Puritans and lonely Pilgrims joining together in covenant for the mutual good of society.  As such, it’s quite surprising that a nation so supposedly enamored of individualism gravitates so strongly toward the communitarian example of Plymouth.

Of course, one might argue that Americans feel the pull of Plymouth not from communitarian motives at all, but from religious ones.  We like the idea that our founders were holy seekers (goes the argument) because such a history posits a Christian basis for the American experiment.  And yet, if religion is so key to our understanding of the first colony, then why Plymouth at all?  Why not eschew the odd blend of secular Pilgrims and religious Puritans who sailed on the Mayflower, instead looking even later, to Massachusetts Bay and John Winthrop’s overtly religious “cittie upon a hill”?

We are left to consider, then, that what draws Americans to Plymouth rather than to either the earlier or the later colonial founding may in fact be the Pilgrims’ communitarianism itself — the Mayflower Compact, the let’s-all-work-together ethos, the “Thanksgiving spirit” that makes the Pilgrims somehow better role models than the backstabbing individualists at Jamestown or the rigid authoritarians at Massachusetts Bay.  And to recognize this fact is to postulate a further conclusion that conservatives would rather not hear: perhaps Americans define themselves neither by the drive of their individualism nor by the ferocity of their religious beliefs, but by the strength of their communities, the warmth of the helping hand they hold out to the downtrodden, and their ability to work together to build a society that leaves no one behind.

Viewed in this way, the cultural rejection of Jamestown becomes an acceptance of the progressive (or Progressive) worldview.  Or maybe not, but at least it’s an idea worth thinking about.

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