An insightful re-examination of the 1607 Jamestown settlement, the story of which is beginning to replace the Mayflower’s as America’s founding myth.
Kelly (Literature/Coll. of Charleston; America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March Toward Civil War, 2013), the editor of the Seagull Reader series, opens with a recounting of the settlement’s dismal beginning. Ships brought about 100 adventurers searching for gold and a passage to the Pacific. Neither turned up, and, unable to obtain food from the unwelcoming natives, most starved to death. Some deserted to the Indians. Others followed John Smith, an ambitious, pugnacious soldier of fortune who made himself leader in 1608 and probably saved the colony by extorting food from native villages. On his decree, “he that will not work shall not eat,” rests his “reputation as the first American.” However, writes Kelly, “appealing as that view is, it misinterprets what really happened that day in Jamestown. Meritocracy was not established. Democracy did not vanquish aristocracy. John Smith was a tyrant.” Mass starvation resumed when he left in 1609, but settlers continued to pour in, eventually exterminating the Indians, and a thriving plantation economy developed. Historians traditionally blame Jamestown’s early years on leaders who—John Smith excepted—couldn’t handle the unskilled, lazy, and rebellious workers. Kelly makes an astute point: Aristocrats wrote every original document from those years. Reading between the lines, the author points out that the “lower sort” had no say in their governance and were expected to follow orders slavishly. They felt cast into the wilderness, marooned. Many realized that Britain’s class system didn’t apply in their new land and that survival required everyone’s cooperation both in labor and government. Their repeated rebellions were quashed, often viciously, although a limited electoral oligarchy took shape as the century progressed.
Discovering seeds of democracy in Massachusetts’ zealots or Virginia’s autocratic patricians has never been easy, but Kelly’s lively, heavily researched, frequently gruesome account gives a slight nod to Jamestown as the “better place to look for the genesis of American ideals.”