May 14, 1607. Jamestown, now in Virginia, became the first English colony in what would later be the United States. It was not the first European colony in our future country. That honor is reserved for Spain, which founded St. Augustine, Florida, in September 1565, some 42 years earlier. Jamestown, named from James I of England, the king who also authorized the King James Bible, sent three boatloads of upper-class Englishmen, who subsisted mainly by trade with the local Indians.
The former were not used to the rough manual labor required by farming. The first two English women arrived two years later. Existence was precarious, but soon boatloads of indentured servants began to arrive. They worked to develop various exports, none of which proved successful. Then, in 1613 a colonist named John Rolfe, the later husband of Pocahontas, introduced tobacco. It proved immensely successful, demand grew, and then, in 1619, exactly 400 years ago, two momentous events took place, both exceedingly significant for the future United States: (1) the first elected legislative assembly was established, and (2) the first African slaves, needed in the burgeoning tobacco industry, reached our shores.
Any idealistic Americans in 2019 who want to see their country realize its potential among the family of nations will have to take this cultural and social DNA into account: democracy and slavery. Classical Greece, which invented Western-style democracy, had the same problem. The U.S. has certainly achieved much in terms of material, technological, and military success. Those eager to “make America great again,” however, need to state when and in what ways America was great before. As racism, institutional and personal, make clear, we have never fully overcome our legacy of slavery. Constitutional amendments are one thing; true freedom from prejudice, poverty, and unfulfilled dreams for today’s descendants of slaves is something else. As for the other strand of our national DNA, Washington, DC-based democracy, hampered by the influence of big-money interests, seems unable to get much done for the greater good of the majority of our citizens.
The greatness of any society is shown in how it treats its children, its ill, its old, and its poor. America’s challenge is thus to overcome its Jamestown DNA and become a great nation spiritually as well as materially. Let us Americans come together to work for that outcome. Let’s make America truly great, not again but for the very first time.