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home : community : history September 27, 2022

7/24/2022 11:56:00 AM
The Mayflower, Jamestown, and the American Revolution

A side note: Jamestown is sinking!

More than 400 years after the first European settlers arrived, Jamestown is struggling to survive climate change.

Those hoping to save the historic site are raising money for a major addition to the 1904 seawall along the river bank of a small tributary to the James River.

The river has risen more than 18 inches in the last century, but that isn't the biggest threat to Jamestown; it's a swamp that's literally devouring history as it grows.

"We have water from both sides, below, above. We're getting attacked from all sides," said Michael Lavin, who is leading the Jamestown fight against climate change. "We're going to have to raise buildings, raise roads, do salvage archaeology, put in berms, and pump systems if we want to save Jamestown."

Jennifer Baker
Vesuvius Furnace Chapter, DAR

The Mayflower, Jamestown, and the American Revolution

Compiled by Jennifer Baker, Vesuvius Furnace DAR (Speedwell Chapter of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and Central North Carolina Company of the Jamestowne Society)

The founding of Jamestown as America’s first permanent English colony, in Virginia in 1607, was 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in Massachusetts. This colony sparked a series of cultural encounters that helped shape the nation with government, language, customs, beliefs, and aspirations of these early Virginians that are all part of the United States’ heritage today.

The history of colonial America gave brief thought to the Mayflower, the Speedwell, the Separatists, and the Strangers. The Mayflower Compact – the charter the Pilgrims signed to bind themselves together in association under the regime of an elected governor – wasn’t remarkable, unusual, or interesting in itself. All colonies came with charters.

Only with the dawning of the American Revolution (1765-1783) was the Mayflower Compact reconsidered. Suddenly the narrative of men and women coming to America – to escape the (religious) authority of the king, no less – and choosing to band together, choosing their leader and laws, and choosing where they settled, became incredible relevant.

Alongside England’s Medieval Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact’s “such just and equal laws […] as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good,” provided precedent of the supremacy of common law over executive authority that underscored the Bill of Rights

Purely in terms of perception, it was certainly preferable to honor Plymouth and the Pilgrims over Virginia and Jamestown – planted by royal warrant and named in honor of Elizabeth I and James I respectively which was sponsored by the Virginia Company of London, a group of investors who hoped to profit from the venture.  Chartered in 1606 by King James I, the company also supported English national goals of counterbalancing the expansion of other European nations abroad, seeking a northwest passage to the Orient, and converting the Virginia Indians to the Anglican religion.

The precedence of the Plymouth colony over the Virginia colony would prove useful too in pushing the role of slavery from the central narrative. It was politically expedient to sidestep the hypocrisy implicit in the Constitution with the declaration that “all men are created equal” by arguing that America began not with the plantations of Jamestown, but the arrival of the Pilgrims.

With that said, the first representative government in British America began at Jamestown in 1619 with the convening of a general assembly, at the request of settlers who wanted input in the laws governing them.  After a series of events, including a 1622 war with the Powhatan Indians and misconduct among some of the Virginia Company leaders in England, the Virginia Company was dissolved by the king in 1624, and Virginia became a royal colony.  Jamestown continued as the center of Virginia’s political and social life until 1699 when the seat of government moved to Williamsburg.  Jamestown ceased to exist as a town by the mid-1700s.

Opponents to the American Revolution, meanwhile, were quick to point out that the Mayflower Compact was also a statement of fealty to the crown, beginning as it does:

“We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith…”

The Missouri-born critic Mark Twain pilloried the regional fixation in an 1880 speech to the New England Sons in Philadelphia:

“Your ancestors broke forever the chains of political slavery, and gave the vote to every man in this wide land, excluding none--except those who did not belong to the orthodox church. […] Hear me, I beseech you; get up an auction and sell Plymouth Rock! The Pilgrims were a simple and ignorant race; they had never seen any good rocks before, or at least any that were not watched, and so they were excusable for hopping ashore in frantic delight and clapping an iron fence around this one; but you, gentlemen, are educated; you are enlightened; you know that in the rich land of your nativity, opulent New England, overflowing with rocks, this one isn’t worth, at the outside, more than 35 cents. Therefore, sell it, before it is injured by exposure, or at least throw it open to the patent medicine advertisements, and let it earn its taxes.”

It wasn’t until the mid to late 19th century – and especially with the Mayflower Tercentenary in 1920 – that it was recognized as a central pillar in the foundation myth of the United States.

The reasons were less edifying. As American society fretted about immigration from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Russia and beyond, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant character of the Mayflower became a rallying point for a conservative ideal of what the US meant, what its values were and – ultimately – who was welcome to call it home.

The Nativist, or Know Nothing, Party which arose in the 1850s believed immigration from Catholic countries to be an organized papist conspiracy. They cloaked themselves in the imagery of the Revolution and the Pilgrim Fathers.

The reactions from those alienated by the spectacle were telling. Some Catholic schools forbade their pupils to take part in Mayflower commemorations and at a 1920 parade in honor of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC, Irish-American counter-protestors sympathetic to the cause of Irish republicanism pointedly wielded banners that asked: “What Did England Do for the Pilgrims When They Were Starving?”

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