Recently the New York Times began a series called the “1619 Project” attempting to show that virtually all of American exceptionalism was grounded in slavery.
Poppycock. (And I’m being very clean with my real reaction!)
As some of you may know, American exceptionalism had nothing to do at all with the introduction of slavery, but really began in 1620 in Massachusetts where there were no slaves. Indeed, although the first Europeans to settle in North America arrived at Jamestown in 1607, bringing with them elements of common law, the arrival of the Pilgrims effectively begins the era of American exceptionalism because both common law and a Christian, mostly Protestant religious tradition was established.
While writers at the NY Times want to cite the arrival of slaves as the foundational moment in America, in fact it was the establishment of a representative assembly in Virginia in that same year that is the truly remarkable date. Thus, within a year, from 1619-1620 in two colonies a nation was founded that had no comparison in all of human history because it was based on the “Four Pillars of American Exceptionalism.” All civilizations on earth had slavery in 1619, so nothing at all was different about that. It has no meaning whatsoever when examining what makes America different. Indeed, it is a continuation of all other countries and empires, especially those in Africa , the Middle East, and China.
What are the Pillars of American Exceptionalism? I will be developing those in several subsequent articles and video talks. But this is history, so let’s go back to America’s first colony and see why it wasn’t an “exceptional” colony in the way Plymouth was.
The arrival of settlers at Jamestown was a miraculous event in and of itself. England had operated under the economic principles of “mercantilism,” in which businesses—while allowed to make a profit—did not exist for the purpose of making a profit but for the purpose of enhancing and expanding the influence and power of the state. Under mercantilism, businesses were quasi-state organizations, chartered by the King (i.e., given a right to do business by the King) who were given land grants in the New World or previously unexplored/unclaimed areas of the world. Using those grants to settle, the joint-stock companies sent bands of settlers to various parts of the earth. They were in essence quasi-military “scouts,” who established military outposts without the associated costs to the Crown, as they were paid by the stockholders of the companies.
In other words, the government in England had conceived of a way to pass the burden of exploration, settlement, and pacification of distant lands onto private entrepreneurs. But don’t be fooled: mercantilism was the economic structure throughout Europe, and was used by the French, Dutch, Portuguese, and others to settle foreign lands.
The Virginia colonists came thanks to the funding of the London Company (also called the Virginia Company of London), a joint-stock company established by a charter from King James I in 1606. So here is our first term: a “joint-stock company” is a western, almost entirely English creation that today we call a “corporation.” A traditional company had two weaknesses. It had limited life, meaning usually it was limited to the life of the founder/owner who ran it, and it had unlimited liability. If it assumed debts along the way that were greater than the assets of the company, the lenders could literally take any property—including horses, cattle, even your house—to make up the difference. But the joint-stock company had investors, that is, “people who took a risk by putting in money in anticipation of future profits.” Right here, you might want to consult my “Teach Your Children” lesson on “Socialism and Capitalism” and note that profits in capitalism are never guaranteed, only hoped for. But the entrepreneur and/or the investor must make a sacrifice in the form of putting in money (see my lesson in “Teach Your Children” on “Time and Money”) first. Remember money is a “physical manifestation of your time, talent, and energy” from the past.
So these London Company investors were putting in time, talent, and energy they had already expended in hopes that the colony in the New World would produce profits (i.e., returns above the time, talent, and energy they had already put in).
Second, the London Company, as an early corporation, had limited liability for its investors. Those who put in, say, $100 (or, in their case, maybe 100 pound sterling)—if worse came to worse—could only lose $100 (or 100 pound sterling). Their “liability”—the possibility of them losing—was limited to what they put in. Debt collectors could not come to their house and take their horses, or savings, or home. These two factors, almost entirely English, made the joint-stock company itself “exceptional” in all the world. For the first time, somewhat ordinary people (remember we are talking about people with extra cash, so merchants, large scale bakers, show producers with a factory, “big agriculture” would be the primary investors) could set aside a little of their savings for a risky proposition that might pay off big.
This, in turn, blew up. It caused thousands of ordinary people to begin investing for the first time----nothing of course, like we saw in the Roaring ‘20s or in the Reagan stock market boom, but very, very significant in its effects. The availability of the joint-stock company also meant that more people could go into business if they could get a charter (i.e., a “right to do business”) from the King. As we will see, over the course of 200 years, so many people were demanding “charters” that by then state legislatures enacted “free incorporation laws” that allowed anyone to start a joint-stock company (at that time called a “corporation”).
There was a third major effect from the joint-stock companies such as the London Company, this one benefitting the King or the “state”. Using joint stock companies to do the exploration and settlement of new lands meant that the government did not have to fund this activity itself. In other words, it was like having a free quasi-military arm, or in today’s world, like having a free NASA and Army Corps of Engineers all at once, paid for by the . . . investors. Remember them? The ones who “took the risk?”
Virtually all of the American settlements would come with charters from the King or Queen and many would be joint stock companies. We will see in future discussions how France and Spain completely missed the boat on this, and why it cost them dearly.
So back to the London Company. King James’s charter to the London Company was to territory in America from about Cape Fear up to the Long Island Sound, but included some land up to the 38th parallel that would later touch on the Plymouth Company—the real focus of our story. But we have to get there.
On April 26, 1607, the London Company settlers arrived at Chesapeake Bay near modern-day Virginia Beach. They moved upstream some 40 miles for safety from potential passing French or Spanish ships, to a point known as Jamestown on the James River. Initially, they referred to this as “James Forte.” Captain Christopher Newport, captain of the Susan Constant, the largest of the London Company’s ships, was a known privateer (i.e., a pirate). One of the settlers was a man named John Smith, a cavalry captain who had been captured by a Turk in 1602, escaped, and found his way back to England. He joined the Jamestown group, but ran afoul of Newport (was charged with mutiny and destined for execution). However, once the Susan Constant arrived just off Virginia, Newport to his astonishment opened sealed orders that named Smith one of the leaders of the new colony. Vexed, Newport helped plant “James Forte” and headed back to England for supplies.
The Virginians had hoped to feed and sustain themselves quickly, but even after two resupply missions by Newport, they were still barely surviving. Half the colonists died during the 1607-08 winter. Unfortunately, when the first of Newport’s supply ships arrived, while bringing food and other necessities, it also brought 120 more men who would eat and take housing. Newport left again, and came back in September 1608, bringing more supplies . . . and more people, this time including two women. Newport headed back to England yet again.
Then a genuine miracle happened. Newport had set sail in June 1609 with nine ships loaded with supplies, only this time his fleet hit a three-day storm. One ship was run aground in Bermuda. Finally, the survivors—about 150 colonists and crew, plus a dog)—boarded two smaller vessels they built from wreckage and finally arrived at Jamestown some 10 months late. The colonists were dying, losing 80% of their number during the “starving time.” Some had sold themselves into slavery to the Indians, some had engaged in cannibalism.
With his supplies lost at sea, Newport gave up. The Jamestown colonists boarded the ships and sailed downstream, headed back for England . . . when a totally unexpected supply ship including a new governor, Thomas West, arrived. Reluctantly, the settlers returned.
Actually, while Newport was racing back and forth across the Atlantic to fetch supplies, John Smith had made a miracle of his own by ending socialism in America.
When the Jamestown colonists first arrived, they operated as a socialist commune. All worked the same land, all drew from common stores. Smith believed in the work ethic, and clearly many of the early settlers were indolent. After trying to extract food from the Indians, he learned from Pocahontas that there was a plot to kill him. He called a meeting and Smith issued the Biblical edict, “He who will not work will not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Nevertheless, Jamestown was still, at that time, operating as a socialist commune, although Smith noted that after his edict settlers worked with more industry.
Meanwhile, Smith had been captured by the Powhatan Indians and, according to Smith, was about to be killed when Pocahontas threw herself over Smith’s body and saved him. Historians have challenged Smith’s writings in an attempt to diminish his role in history, but most historians accept Smith’s accounts as true. In 1609, before of the miraculous shipment, Smith again ordered everyone to trade guns to the Indians for food and ordered anyone who didn’t work to be banished from the fort.
After the “Starving Time,” in 1610 the second “miracle” hit Jamestown: each man was given three acres of land, and virtually all “communal work” was ended. They raised enough corn to sell to the Indians. They also discovered tobacco which they could sell in England. By 1614 Colony Secretary Ralph Hamor wrote that after the switch there was "plenty of food, which every man by his own industry may easily and doth procure." Under the socialist/”commons” system, “we reaped not so much corn from the labors of thirty men as three men have done for themselves now.”
Jamestown had been saved by two miracles, one from God, the other from free-market principles. And in land ownership, the Virginians were also endowed with citizenship rights. Without knowing they were already different, the Virginians were developing a common law heritage in which governance started at the bottom and bubbled up. Few would have recognized that at first—but it was inevitable given they were all landholders, for with land in Europe came rights. This concept was expanding more every day. Perhaps the first colonists wouldn’t have challenged a governor, but it would not be too long before demanding rights from a governor and resisting his edicts would become a way of life. In 1619 the natural extension of these landholding rights came about with the first legislative assembly convened in America: a House of Burgesses.
Earlier that year, the London Company told Virginia Governor Sir George Yeardley to summon a general assembly elected by the settlers themselves, with every free adult male voting. (Recall some whites had sold themselves into slavery with the Indians!) The new House met on July 30, and while all laws would have to be approved by the London Company,
But enough on Jamestown. We see that Jamestown had a “free market” of sorts and common law. It was still missing, however, a key Pillar of American Exceptionalism, which is why 1620 is the better default for all of American Exceptionalism.