Another View of Jamestown and the American Spirit

Earlier I spoke rather negatively about the first permanent settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. The settlers were ill-prepared; many were resentful that any work was expected of them; they abused the Native American population; they came primarily for gold, the get-rich-quick scheme of the day.

Others take a rosier view, such as Tony Williams in his book The Jamestown Experiment (2011). He says, “The American Dream was built along the banks of the James River in Virginia.” Can he back up such a claim?

He continues:

The solutions to the troubles at Jamestown were rooted in the entrepreneurial spirit that would shape and define the American character. Private property, individual initiative, personal incentives to seek profit, and the freedom to pursue one’s own happiness — these are the traits that helped the colony survive and built a nation.”

Perhaps I have just become too offended by the incredible level of greed in our economy. Maybe Williams is right: America is a great nation because we are committed to private property, individual initiative, the profit motive, and the freedom for each of us to seek his or her own happiness. Not a bad summary of what is clearly a very conservative set of values.

Oddly (to me, at least), little of my own values show up in that list: Love, generosity, sacrifice for others, peace, education, faith, wisdom, integrity. I guess what I take to be fundamental values are just details to Williams. Williams’ list leads to wealth for some but somehow I just can’t put wealth anywhere near the top on my list of values. Even freedom, the one thing that surely must be on the list of every American, has to be curbed — usually by government — when one person’s freedom is unduly costly to others. Donald Trump makes money but is he a positive or a shameful part of the American scene? I certainly know my answer to that question but I suppose Williams, like other conservatives in our day, would call Trump a success. I would call him a failure.

No, I’m afraid that Williams’ praise for the first settlers at Jamestown leaves me unconvinced. Greed, obsession with short-term profit, abuse of Native Americans, enslavement of Blacks: these are not qualities which ought to inspire pride in us. Capitalism is a mix of blessing and curse and it is not always clear which is greater.

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About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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