By James Horn, The Hill
It’s reasonable to assume that 1619 is not a date that looms large in the historical consciousness of most Americans. A year before the pilgrims of Plymouth, two decades before Massachusetts, and more than a century and a half before the Declaration of Independence and the creation of republican government, to most people four hundred years ago seems a remote time and place. And yet, in that remarkable year the key principles of our nation’s democratic experiment were woven into our political, social and economic fabric. They have endured ever since.
Virginia was intended to be a profitable commercial venture. But owing to misgovernment, heavy loss of life and the determination of Indian peoples, the Powhatans, to resist English settlement the first decade was a disaster. On the verge of collapse, leaders of the Virginia Company of London (the venture’s financial sponsors) resolved to implement a complete change in how the colony was administered, abandoning the military rule of previous years and introducing instead a civilian government based on English precedents.
In 1619, the highly respected leader of the Company, Sir Edwin Sandys, together with Governor Sir George Yeardley, implemented far-reaching reforms that included four major innovations. First was the introduction of private property. Earlier, land had been held either directly by the Company or allocated to groups of merchants and investors in the form of vast, baronial-sized private plantations. Few smallholders had been able to obtain their own property and instead labored on the Company’s lands or plantations of large landowners. With the adoption of the Company’s “great charter,” tantamount to a New Deal for ordinary settlers, cheap land became widely available to smallholders for the first time. Thereafter, the prospect of owning land was the main inducement for tens of thousands of settlers to move to the colony.
Broad-based access to private property necessarily compelled the Company to consider how to ensure security of possession. Without firm guarantees that property rights would be protected against arbitrary seizure or embezzlement, potential settlers would not be attracted to the colony; the risk to themselves and their property would be too great. Steeped in the constitutional controversies of the day involving King James and parliament, Sandys turned to a fundamental principle of English polity: the rule of law. Henceforth all disputes in the colony, civil or criminal, would be resolved according to the laws and customs practiced in England. Moreover, Virginia’s laws and ordinances, a contemporary asserted, were not to be “hidden like a candle under a bushel, but in form of a Magna Charta” to be published throughout the entire colony. The rights and responsibilities of settlers were to be known to all, and all, from the lowest to the highest, would have the same standing before the law. Virginia was the first colony in British America to adopt the rule of law, the sine qua non of all free, democratic societies.
The third of the great reforms was the establishment of the General Assembly. In late June 1619, Governor Yeardley sent writs to the colony’s planters ordering the selection of two men from eleven jurisdictions, four newly-created boroughs and seven large, private plantations. Termed burgesses, on July 30 the 22 men joined the governor and his council in a single deliberative body in the choir (chancel) of Jamestown’s small, wooden church. Adhering to the maxim that “every man will more willingly obey laws to which he hath yielded his consent,” settlers would be able to consider legislation sent to the colony by the Company and promote measures for their own and the general good.
Sandys’s final innovation was the most ambitious. Virginia, he hoped, would in time develop into a “perfect” commonwealth, a greatly improved version of English society at home. Commonwealth theory had emerged in Europe during the late 15th and 16th centuries and highlighted the common good of the people. Successful commonwealths were founded on wise and noble rulers, mixed government (a balance of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy), Christian morality and social and economic wellbeing. Enlightened statesmen and intellectuals believed the application of rational approaches to government and social and economic organization would encourage the improvement of societies and the human condition. Where better to test these ideas than in America?
Virginia offered an opportunity for thousands of settlers to escape the vicious cycle of overpopulation and unemployment that had stunted the lives of countless English poor and lower-middling working people for more than a century. Destitute boys and girls with “no places of abode or friends” swept up from the streets of London would find a new life employed in the fields of tobacco plantations or the workshops of skilled artisans. Land and regular work would give the poor a livelihood, a place in society and possibly even a degree of respectability. Virginia would be a Christian commonwealth in which prosperity would depend not only on new arrivals from England but also on Indians becoming members of the Church of England and settler societies springing up along the James River Valley; a tragically misguided vision for relations with the Powhatans, who had no desire to adopt English ways or Christianity.
If some aspects of Sir Edwin Sandys’s and the Company’s plans for Virginia ultimately proved unworkable, nevertheless what took place at Jamestown in 1619 was of momentous significance. All the British colonies that eventually formed the United States established their own representative assemblies and judicial bodies designed to protect the settlers’ lives, liberties and properties. Early Virginia was by no means a modern democracy. The great majority –women, Africans and their descendants, and Indian peoples – were barred from participating. Yet Sandys’s reforms were the first tentative steps toward an expansive and inclusionary polity.
In this 400th anniversary year of the first General Assembly, it is therefore timely to remind ourselves of the deep roots of our democratic experiment, and of the vital importance of the rule of law and representative government that remain at the heart of our democracy and national identity.