In the British Virginia Colony during the summer of 1619, two events took place within weeks of each other that would shape the United States of America in profoundly contradictory ways. One event was the initial legislative assembly of Englishmen meeting in Jamestowne from July 30 to August 4. The other event was the arrival at Point Comfort of a Dutch slaver during the third week in August, when according to John Rolfe, tobacco planter and husband of Pocahontas, approximately 20 Africans were traded to Virginians for food. [See PBS Africans in America “Part I: Arrival of First Africans to Virginia Colony.”] Although these two events in American history occurred in the same place, in the same month and year, seldom are they thought to have much in common, although myths and misperceptions about them have abounded over many years.
Let us examine the first – the Virginia assembly. After battling death, disease, crime, attacks by indigenous people, starvation, crop failure, and insurrection under imposed martial law, major colonial stakeholders in Virginia decided to meet and establish a means to enact laws governing daily life so that the colony could survive. With the support of Governor Yeardley who had some British Parliamentary experience, this group of men decided that management of their affairs would be conducted by British men registered with the London Virginia Colony. The Assembly consisted of two persons from eleven settlements (also known as plantations or burgesses), six Councilors, and the appointed Governor. In their first meeting, they determined who was eligible for Assembly membership, what issues they could consider, and the rules of procedure. By no means did they create democratic rule, but they attempted to address issues of economic, social, political, and religious well-being.
Some consider this event to be the beginning of ideals and practices now entrenched in US political culture. It would be more fitting to describe this gathering as a political oligarchy or an economic cartel that regulated, in addition to their physical security, the well-being of Virginia’s colony. The record shows their interests included tobacco price fixing, inheritance, taxation, and the education of English and Native males in this first gathering. These men established and agreed that they would be bound by the rule of law in a system that enforced and supported their cultural bias, interest, and experience.
In brief, persons with interests vested in a powerful mercantile economic system found themselves removed by an ocean from London authority, and assumed the power to control everyone’s daily existence – British, European, Native, and African. They filled a vacuum of social and economic order in order to survive on their own terms following insufficient martial law. They politely petitioned their English investors to accept the decisions made in the colony – rules which immediately acquired the force of law. Rejection or revision of their decisions required notification, and that notification involved two ocean voyages lasting several months each way.
What was to become the House of Burgesses was from the beginning a select legislative body. A form of democracy or representative government it was not. In fact, over the intervening years until the Revolution, it became increasingly exclusive. By the late 1670s, membership was restricted to property owners–the most powerful and wealthy men in the colony. These were the same class of elites who would sit in Philadelphia in 1776 to write and sign the Declaration of Independence.
We turn now to the second 1619 summer event – the arrival of male and female Angolans at Point Comfort, the defensive outpost for the Jamestowne colony. These Africans were enslaved by the Portuguese and captured by a Dutch merchant ship. Neither the African nor slavery was unknown to these Virginia colonists. The status of these Angolans was not as ambiguous as many historians would like to assume. Perhaps the colonists had limited personal experience with Africans, but according to archaeological research, Africans were already in Jamestowne at some point before August 1619, perhaps as part of a ship’s crew. The crucial issue is the assumption and acceptance by these colonists that human beings could be exchanged for food as two commodities. Even if it took another twenty-one years to declare by law that a person, who was an African, would retain the status of servant “for life here or elsewhere,” the mind set that propelled the law existed prior to its enactment. In most cases, laws usually follow common practice. The House of Burgesses enacted legal safeguards according to accepted beliefs:
1639 – Blacks in the colony were not allowed to own or use arms unless in defense of their master’s property against Native attacks.
1661 – English common law was altered so that children assumed the status of their mothers because there were so many British men propagating with African women.
1682 – All non-whites, both African and Native, in the colony were declared enslaved.
When we examine the evolution of the ideals of liberty, justice, and democracy, we propose that more credence be given to protests, rebellions, and revolts in shaping our nation’s ideals. For example, the now-accepted principles of “one citizen/one vote” and “no taxation without representation” have taken shape despite the resistance of vested political and economic interests. Some of these anomalies persist to this day, particularly in certain specific US territories and national possessions. Residents of the nation’s capital and the territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands continue to have no actual Congressional representation, even though they do pay taxes.
These protests, revolts, and demonstrations we also argue, had greater impact on the concepts of “liberty and justice for all” than traditional historical mythology usually portrays. Without significant challenge, the powerful will operate in their own self-interest, not for the common good, as they exhibited from the beginning in Jamestown. Resistance erupted well before the War of Independence: Bacon’s Rebellion (1675-1676), Leisler’s Rebellion (1689-1691), Stono Rebellion (1739), New York Rebellion (1741), Philadelphia Election Riot (1742), Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763), Stamp Act Protests (1765), Boston Massacre (1770), and the iconic Boston Tea Party (1773).
It has been and most likely always will be a constant struggle to define, to establish by law, and to vigorously protect these ideals. Challenging the accepted norms when they are unfair or unjust, resisting oppression, and supporting equal treatment and protection are life-long strenuous tasks. Achieving the “more perfect union” grants us the privilege to say, “made in America,” based on fact, not myth.
Source Document: Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations and Rebellions in American History: An Encyclopedia, Volumes 1-3 by Steven L. Danver, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA (2011)