I watched a long video about the first few years of the Jamestown settlement, covering the years from 1607 until about 1620. On the main points of the video is that it is wrong to speak of the Pilgrims in Plymouth as the founders of the American spirit, since Jamestown was established 13 years before the Mayflower arrived in New England.
The narrator, in making this point, said, “What your parents told you was wrong.” That is a fascinating statement for several very different reasons. First, what I was taught as a child back in the 40s and 50s was that Jamestown was the first English settlement in the New World. I don’t recall anyone ever saying otherwise, neither my parents nor my teachers. So the narrators sentence is simply silly.
Second, there is very good reason for us to pay more attention to the Pilgrims than to the Anglicans in Virginia. In a word, the Pilgrims — however imperfect they were — were shaped in large measure by ideals, ideals which still are part of the American spirit. The Jamestown settlers? No ideals whatsoever. They were not even admirable people. Sent for gold, unprepared for finding or raising food, unable even to find a decent place to build their little community, many of them unwilling to do any work to sustain themselves or their comrades: These are the people the video wants to claim as the founders of our nation.
Third, when we think of the heritage they did leave, is it anything of which we are to be proud? Aside from their initial ineptitude, there were four characteristics which did in fact become common in the New World and which are even today cause for shame.
They abused the native population. They were shredded by their own infighting. They eventually flourished but only because after several years they planted and sold tobacco. They were the first community in the future United States to use slavery in their agriculture.
Racism is still a serious problem for us (such as in the utterly irrational hatred of Obama by the Right). Tobacco is still a deadly addictive force. And, as our Congress proves every day, we still prefer picking each other apart rather than cooperating to achieve common goals.
Want to claim Jamestown as the model for the future America? Well, maybe you’re right, I’m sorry to say.