Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. – Pope Francis
In October 1609, Capt. John Smith, hero of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, left to go back to England, injured and disgraced, never to return.
It was probably for the best. Jamestown was turning out to be a mistake, contained in a disaster, wrapped up in a tragedy. The settlers wanted to abandon it more than once. It was a pathetic beginning for the colonization of the part of North America that would, 170 years later, declare its independence and become the United States.
Of the approximately 560 people who had so far been transplanted to live at Jamestown, more than 240 had died. The Sea Venture, one of the largest and most modern ships to set sail for Virginia, was shipwrecked with 150 on board. Even worse was yet to come during the winter of 1609-10 when 440 out of 500 settlers died in what has become known as the “starving time.” This is an 88 percent death rate!
I visited the Jamestown archaeological site this past summer. The work done there to date is well documented in both the main visitor center and the Archaearium, but I found myself leaving with many questions. What motivated the settlers to leave England for such a miserable ending? How did the backers and financiers in London justify sending so many to their deaths? Were these people just victims of circumstances or was there something else going on that was crippling their ability to thrive?
The answers to these questions have been the subject of debate for several decades at least. But it is undeniable that Jamestown was the beginning of America.
However, our American myth of origin is exactly that–a myth. This country did not begin with noble Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Rather, it began in a swampy, stinking scrap of land in Virginia.
According to author and historian James Horn, Jamestown–the first permanent English settlement on the continent–“was not intended as a model for some kind of idealized version of English society…or as a religious refuge for ‘God’s chosen people.'” Rather, “colonies would produce goods in demand in England that hitherto had to be imported from Europe and Asia, and English merchants would provide colonists with necessary credit, laborers, and supplies.”
By modern standards, though, this colony was an astonishing waste of resources, money, and human life. It is surprising to me that human life was given so little value. Not only were the Indians slaughtered mercilessly merely for being not Christians, but the English settlers were sent to their almost certain death simply because the lords wanted to beat the Spanish and claim North America for their king.
And to make money. Lots of money.
What it boils down to for me is this: The idea that we are a great nation with a manifest destiny founded on Christian principles is a fiction. Yes, we have persevered, but mostly out of dumb luck and not a divine plan.
Are these the so-called values that some Americans want to restore when they say our country needs to be restored to her former glory? If not, what is it exactly that they want to restore?
There is no immutable force guiding our direction. It is we, the People, who have a sacred obligation to set the nation’s course, to seek positive change, to honor our fellow citizens, and be committed to democracy and the Constitutional process.
I wonder what Capt. John Smith would think of America today. Would he be disappointed? Would he see a lot of material wealth without much unity? Maybe. Or perhaps he would he be happy to see that, despite the ill-conceived trainwreck of our first settlement, we somehow have risen above our beginnings and just might have a shot at another 400 years.