Yesterday marked the culmination of the festivities surrounding the 400th anniversary of the English settlement at Jamestown.
Many articles have been written and viewpoints expressed about the early colonists, their turbulent relations with the local Indian tribes, their decimation by disease and starvation, their discovery of tobacco as a cash crop, their importation of African slave labor and their founding of the House of Burgesses.
Names like John Smith, Pocahontas, John Rolfe, Powhatan and Christopher Newport are woven into the fabric of American history. But do they matter? Sure they do.
Without Jamestown, there is no Virginia. And without Virginia, there is no United States of America.
This nation, with all its glories and imperfections, dates back to 1607. There is no equivalent date in our history. Once Virginia was formed and once the colony became established, the spread of the English-speaking peoples and their culture across America became the destiny of this new world. We all live that legacy, whether our background is Indian, Anglo, Irish, Asian, Spanish or African.
Jamestown defines our American character. Examine John Smith. When he took control of the starving colony, his rule for self-preservation was simple: if you don’t work, you don’t eat.
With that simple command, he swept away hundreds of years of European aristocratic privilege and established America as a meritocracy where you succeeded on your own skills or you perished. To borrow a current slang, he kept it real.
Today’s scrutiny of these settlers is a good thing. They were not perfect. Some of their actions shock our modern sensibilities (although in this era who is to pass judgment?), and consequences of their choices live with us today. They lived and died in an intense and truncated existence. Their lives had little glory.
But the colony survived. And the idea grew that you can succeed in America with hard work and intelligence. That is what this nation is all about.