Richard Brookhiser: Inventing America

Roundup: Talking About History

The Virginia colony had John Smith, Pocahontas, slavery, famine, battles and a great Indian chief. So how come Plymouth Rock gets all the press? An in-depth look at the place where our nation began to take shape They thought they were lost. The Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery had sailed from London on Dec. 20, 1606, carrying 144 passengers and crew, bound for Virginia. Howling winds pinned them to the coast of England for six weeks. After crossing the Atlantic by a southerly route and reprovisioning in the West Indies, they headed north, expecting landfall in the third week of April 1607. Instead they found a tempest. For four days they sounded, seeking offshore shallows in vain. Then, at 4 a.m. on April 26, they saw land. The three ships sailed into Chesapeake Bay and found, in the words of one voyager, "fair meadows and goodly tall trees, with such fresh waters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof." They picked an island in a river for a fortified outpost and named it after their king, James.

May is Jamestown's 400th birthday, and Queen Elizabeth II, James I's great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-granddaughter, will be present to celebrate the occasion. But it's worth remembering that Jamestown was a giant gamble. The trials were severe, the errors numerous, the losses colossal, the gains, eventually, great. Life in Jamestown was a three-way tug-of-war between daily survival, the settlers' own preconceptions and the need to adapt to a new world. Jamestown did not invent America, but in its will to survive, its quest for democracy, its exploitation of both Indians and slaves, it created the template for so many of the struggles--and achievements--that have made us who we are. It contained in embryo the same contradictions that still resonate in America today--the tension between freedom and authority, between public purpose and private initiative, between our hopes and our fears.

Jamestown spawned four centuries of myths. The wreck of a reinforcement expedition in Bermuda inspired Shakespeare's magic play, The Tempest (1611), complete with Caliban, a savage aboriginal; a passage in one of John Smith's many promotional tracts inspired a verse in Peggy Lee's song Fever (1958)--"Captain Smith and Pocahontas had a very mad affair." In reality, Jamestown was a hardheaded business proposition. The 104 English settlers who stayed when the ships went home--gentlemen, soldiers, privateers, artisans, laborers, boys (no women yet)--were late entrants in the New World sweepstakes. Spain had conquered Mexico by 1521, Peru by 1534. The mines disgorged silver, and by the end of the 16th century, Mexico City and Lima had universities, printing presses and tens of thousands of inhabitants. The Portuguese were harvesting dyewood in Brazil, and the French were trading for furs in Canada. Even the somewhat overlooked Chesapeake had seen European passersby: the Native Americans were not unused to strangers with pale skins and sailing ships....

Jamestown left a record of spite, want and death, to say nothing of the long-range problems, from racism to lung cancer, of which the colonists were unaware. Yet they survived. Key aspects of the Jamestown template--chiefly the lures of religious liberty, private ownership and a measure of self-rule--guaranteed that British North America would be populous enough to withstand challenges from France and Holland and, finally, the power grabs of the mother country.

The settlers came with ideas they had to junk. Some of their brightest hopes were false. They worked hard and got other people to do their work for them. They were foolish, fierce and surprisingly stubborn. When one thing failed, they tried another. We are their descendants.

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