Friday, August 2, 2019

The Origins of Democracy?




I don't know what's more absurd, Trump trying to pronounce origins or Jamestown being called the origins of our Democracy?  Both were on display this week for all to see as Trump honored the first general assembly held in America in 1619, but not without a little protest to heighten the event.

This short protest was great on numerous levels.  First, it silenced Trump in a way he didn't expect.  Second, the young protester called attention to the way the president has denigrated Congresspersons of color ranging from Ilhan Omar to Elijah Cummings.  Third, he called attention to the fact Jamestown was a slave colony, with the first record of Africans being sold to English settlers the same year as the first general assembly.  This was probably what was discussed at that historic meeting.

The absurdity of honoring Jamestown as the cradle of democracy belies what a harsh autocratic society it was at the time.  We've seen the colony portrayed in movies like The New World and in a new television series simply entitled Jamestown.  Of course, there have been many sugar-coated portrayals of Jamestown like Disney's Pocahontas, but it is not like mainstream society is unaware of the harsh realities of this early English outpost in America.

Whatever democracy occurred in Jamestown was only among the elites.  It wasn't just women, natives and slaves who had no rights, but also indentured servants, as John Smith was portrayed in The New World.  This was a cruel, unforgiving society, which was why there were so many rebellions and the settlement was eventually abandoned by the end of the 17th century, after the capital of Virginia was moved to Williamsburg.

Yet, Jamestown lives on, thanks largely to the Pocahontas story.  These early English settlements along the Eastern seaboard, weren't about democracy.  It was a pretty unheard of thing back then.  It wasn't until the mid 18th century that we began to see the Enlightenment spread to America and colonial leaders experimenting with representative government. 

The 17th century was pretty much the dark ages of America, a ruthless society driven largely by fear of the unknown, as English settlers tried to stake out their claims in a new world inhabited by what they regarded as savages.  They used the Bible to justify their cruel and inhuman treatment not just of natives but of their own members, who had strayed.  Everything from witch trials, to expulsion of families that didn't subscribe to their narrow interpretation of the Bible, to executions of those who refused to heed their commands.  You would be hard pressed to find any of the hallmarks of what we regard as democratic government today.

Just the same, we feel this need to honor a piece of paper that really means nothing, other than a group of elites gathered together to form a government of sorts to better manage affairs at Jamestown.  It's fitting that they would invite Trump to the event, as he is the very epitome of the same autocratic mindset that pervaded Jamestown at the time.  These were basically the "oranges" of corporations, with the formation of a board to oversee the production of tobacco to be shipped back to Mother England.  The colony needed additional manpower and soon found it in a Dutch ship full of slaves, kidnapped from a Portuguese ship bound for the Caribbean. 

In this sense, Jamestown is the model of Southern aristocratic life, which would flourish in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  These "legislative" bodies ran their colonies, and eventually states, with an iron fist.  Hard to think of them as little democracies.

One of the few colonies to have anything approaching the idea of democracy was Rhode Island, established by Roger Williams, after breaking away from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  He at least forged a tentative peace with the local native population, and gave them equal voice in decisions made in the colony.  It was a matter of self-preservation mostly, as Williams knew his colony couldn't survive without a joint effort.  Eventually, Rhode Island became like every other colony along the Eastern seaboard.

Anyway, I'm glad someone called out this charade for what it is.  I would like to see more of our youth challenge our myths of early American society.


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