Jamestown, Cradle of U.S. Democracy

Colonial settlers forged representative government in New World

By Lauren Monsen

USINFO Staff Writer

Although Virginia’s Jamestown settlement — the first permanent English settlement in the New World — was launched in 1607 as a commercial venture by London shareholders, it quickly evolved into the English New World’s first laboratory for representative government.

Jamestown, which was celebrating its 400th anniversary in 2007 with 18 months of events and commemorations, is regarded as the cradle of U.S. democracy by many historians, but scholar Warren Billings points out that this was not what the settlement’s founders originally had in mind.

The colonists did not intend “to create a legislature as we know it,” Billings said in an interview with USINFO. In fact, Virginia’s General Assembly was created in 1619 as “an adjunct management device for the Virginia Company of London” shareholders to administer the settlement’s affairs.

“It was never the intent for the Assembly to be modeled on a parliament,” said Billings. “That came later.”

At first, the Assembly met as a unicameral body, comprising Virginia’s governor, members of his advisory council and elected representatives known as burgesses.

It evolved into a bicameral legislature, with the burgesses functioning much like the English Parliament’s House of Commons, and the governor’s advisory council, or upper chamber, patterning itself after the House of Lords.

Certain colonial innovations marked the beginnings of a uniquely American democratic framework. “The tying of representation to specific areas and numbers of voters” in Virginia was a departure from the English model, said Billings, who is distinguished professor emeritus in the University of New Orleans history department and the author of numerous books on early 17th-century Virginia and Jamestown. Increasingly, Virginian burgesses were elected from their own home districts, “so direct representation began to take hold in Virginia in the 17th century,” he said.

The other 12 colonies that eventually would join Virginia in forming the United States of America also adopted Virginia’s parliamentary model, and these in turn served as the models for the Continental Congress that served as governing body for the colonies as they sought independence, “and even for the Congress we have today,” said Billings.

The 65-foot Godspeed is a three-masted square-rigger that was built for the Jamestown Settlement museum. (© AP Images)

“But Virginia is the place where it starts,” he said. “And much of what the United States has been about” revolves around the question of “who and what is an American; that conversation started in Jamestown, and continues to this day with our debate on immigration,” he continued. That debate “is messy, it’s raucous, at times it’s violent and ugly, but it never ceases.”

Jamestown can be linked “in a very general sense” to the emergence of new democracies in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, said Billings. The impulse toward representative government that now prevails in much of the world “is part of that long-term tradition” that Jamestown symbolizes, he said.

Kevin Kelly, a historian at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, told USINFO that when 17th-century legislators met in Jamestown, “they were beginning to tailor their laws to fit circumstances that were peculiar to colonial life.”

Unfortunately, one of those circumstances was slavery, a particularly tragic and troublesome aspect of Virginia’s patrimony, said Kelly. The General Assembly’s attempts to grapple with racial matters were constrained by many landowners’ dependence on a system of forced servitude.

The lower chamber of the Assembly “became the dominant chamber by the 18th century,” because the burgesses far outnumbered the governor’s advisory council, said Kelly. Members of today’s U.S. House of Representatives — the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress — outnumber the members of the U.S. Senate, or upper chamber, by 435 to 100.

Asked whether the Jamestown venture can be viewed as a precursor to the growing global trend toward democratic governance, Kelly agreed that nascent democracies around the world do owe a debt to Jamestown, though indirectly. Jamestown was instrumental “in the development of our [American] kind of self-governance,” he said. “And the spread of democracy is evident not only in the growing number of representative governments, but in the fact that most countries now want to be perceived as democratic, since there is a stigma attached to undemocratic regimes. This acts as a pressure in favor of reforms.”

Historians doubtless will continue to examine the legacy of the Jamestown settlement, in all its complexity and ambiguity. But perhaps Jamestown’s (and Virginia’s) place in U.S. history best can be summed up in the words of a 1907 Virginia guidebook, which cites Jamestown as “the sire of Virginia, and Virginia the mother of this great Republic.”

Additional information about Jamestown and the events commemorating its 400th anniversary is available on the Jamestown 2007 Web site.

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