Will the toxic, partisan politics of 2019 mar events this week in Jamestown meant to commemorate and to celebrate a key moment in American and world history? We hope not, but can’t help but fear so.
The year 1619 was momentous in the history of what would become the United States of America.
The Virginia Company’s settlement at Jamestown, founded in 1607, was hanging on by a thread. Disease and attacks by surrounding tribes of indigenous peoples were constant threats. The colony was yet to turn a profit for the investors back in England who had backed the venture in the New World. Bluntly put, the situation looked bleak.
But 1619 was a turning point in many respects.
To shore up the population, the Virginia Company began an active recruitment drive at home to sign up single women — candidates for marriage — to journey to Virginia. Though women had lived in Jamestown from the beginning, this was the first targeted effort to increase their numbers for the express purpose of marriage.
Then, John Rolfe — the settler who had married Pocahontas, the daughter of a tribal leader — successfully pulled off the mass cultivation of a “noxious weed,” as King James I called it, that would save the colony financially: tobacco.
Ominously, that same year, a Dutch trading ship arrived in Jamestown with its hold laden with a cargo of 20 or so Africans. Likely regarded as indentured servants at first, court records note the freedom date of only one African “servant” before 1640 when chattel slavery was established in the colony.
And on July 30, 1619, the first meeting of an elected representative body in North America and the Western Hemisphere convened in Jamestown: the House of Burgesses. Created by order of the Virginia Company, settlers at 22 “plantations” surrounding the capital of Jamestown elected one of their number to govern the colony along with the governor and Council of State, both appointed by the Company.
Today, we know that body as the House of Delegates, one half of the Virginia General Assembly, the oldest continuously meeting elected legislature in the United States.
On Tuesday, the General Assembly will convene in Jamestown for a special session to commemorate that moment in American and world history — when a freely elected constituent assembly formed and met to govern in the name of the people. Yes, only free, white men could vote in that first election, with an additional restriction of property ownership added some 50 years later, but what started 400 years ago in Jamestown is now a bedrock of American representative democracy.
But the bitterness and partisanship endemic to our politics in 2019 has managed to invade the 400th anniversary celebrations of that landmark moment in history.
Gov. Ralph Northam has invited President Trump to attend the festivities, prompting the Democratic caucuses in the state Senate and House of Delegates to threaten to boycott the proceedings.
In a statement, the Democratic leadership of the Assembly was pointed in its criticism of the president and the possibility he might be on hand Tuesday: “The current president does not represent the values that we would celebrate at the 400th anniversary of the oldest democratic body in the world. We offer just three words of advice to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation [the official organizers of the events]: ‘Send Him Back.’”
Those three words — “Send Him Back” — reflected the message the president tweeted a couple of weeks ago in an attack on four Democratic members of Congress, four progressive women of color who have been constant critics of him and his policies.
We can more than understand the reluctance of Assembly Democrats to sit in the audience with the president. His language, his public behavior and his attacks on his critics are repugnant to them and many Americans.
But … .
We believe they should drop their boycott threat, swallow their pride and take part in this momentous event, even if the president does attend. As Gov. Northam said last week, Tuesday’s events are “larger than the president.” Yes, the president is a divisive figure; there’s no denying that. But in Jamestown on Tuesday, we and the world will be celebrating the first elected legislative body ever to convene in the New World and the oldest body in the world still meeting today.
It’s that history, that legacy that has come to define what America is to the world. To mar it with a display of partisan politics is not what we need at this moment in our history.