The president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation weighs in on a significant year in American history.
Two events in Virginia in 1619 laid the foundations of our democracy, writes Horn (A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, 2010, etc.) in a well-researched, insightful history that will persuade some readers that he is on to something. Jamestown was a business venture of London’s Virginia Company, which sent men in 1607 to find riches as the Spanish had in Mexico and Peru. None turned up, and, unprepared to work, most of the explorers died of starvation and disease. Giving up the search, the company sent those willing to settle in the region. Farms and towns spread, but local officials handled this with much favoritism and corruption, and company shareholders saw no profits. After years of frustration, the company issued reforms aimed at “nothing less than the founding of a new type of society…built on good government, just laws, Protestant morality, and rewards for everyone who invested or settled in the colony….In Virginia, commonwealth theory guided the leadership’s approach to every facet of the emerging colony.” This included a General Assembly consisting of two members elected from each borough. The assembly met in 1619, transacted business for a few weeks, and then dissolved. Almost simultaneously, two privateers docked with a load of Africans who were set to work as slaves, the first to arrive. These events were soon obscured by the chaos of an Indian war; the Virginia Company was abolished in 1624, and Virginia itself was governed by a small (but elected) oligarchy until the 20th century.
Readers may question whether the 1619 election deeply influenced our institutions, but it was the first, and Horn has expertly illuminated a little-known era following Jamestown’s settlement.