There are several 1619 projects, beyond the slavery narrative most recently highlighted. And they speak to an America of both sin and redemption, as I was reminded on a recent village to Jamestown, Virginia, America’s first English surviving settlement.
The 1619 Project published by The New York Times in 2019 described the arrival of the first slaves at Jamestown Colony as America’s “true founding.” It strove to reinterpret many of America’s great events, such as the America Revolution, as motivated by or at least corrupted by slavery.
Twenty slaves did indeed arrive at Jamestown in 1619, originally transported by Portuguese from Angola and captured by English privateers operating under a Dutch flag. Their arrival tragically launched 230 years of slavery in America, only halted by the Civil War and 700,000 dead, followed by a century of legal segregation and more years of racial animosity.
But there were other momentous events at Jamestown in 1619 that shaped America no less. That year ninety women from England arrived as intended brides for the nearly all male colony. Their arrival meant that Virginia and other English colonies would not follow much of the Spanish/Portuguese colonial example in Latin America. There, the Spanish and Portuguese men typically arrived as adventurers and often relied on exploitation of native women. The new women of Jamestown helped ensure Virginia would be very different, more centered around marriage and family, creating a less stratified society.
And in 1619 the first elected representative legislative assembly of the Western Hemisphere convened in Jamestown. The governor and Virginia Company back in Britain hoped the assembly would facilitate a more stable colony that attracted land owning farmers who were invested in the colony’s success. This assembly met in the new timber church on the edge of what had been the original fort of 1607. There were 22 elected representatives from throughout the colony of about 700 people. They were to meet for six days but adjourned after five days because of malaria.
Across the years this assembly sometimes was disrespected by the royally appointed governor and monarch. But it was never permanently dissolved, it gained control over taxation of the colony, and it persevered. Eventually called the House of Burgesses, its later members included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and Patrick Henry, among other luminaries.
Virginia’s assembly was the nursery for what became the United States and its founding fathers. It was a leader in resisting British attempts to reduce colonial liberties. In the 1760s the burgesses reasserted their rights over taxation. The royal governor dissolved it when the assembly protested Britain’s Townsend Act of taxation without representation. So, the burgesses adjourned to the nearby Raleigh Tavern and resolved to boycott British goods. In 1774 the burgesses momentously called for “prayer and fasting” in solidarity with the people of Boston, whose port had been closed by the British in punishment for the Boston Tea Party. When the royal governor was forced to quit a rebellious Virginia, the burgesses reorganized into revolutionary assemblies, one of which hosted Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, and which became Virginia’s House of Delegates. Virginia’s constitutional convention of 1776 approved the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason, and which inspired both the Declaration of Independence and the later Bill of Rights for the U.S. Constitution.
This House of Delegates, at the urging of member James Madison, supported by his friend Thomas Jefferson, disestablished the church in Virginia and granted full religious freedom to all people in the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom of 1786.
The first assembly of 1619 was elected by all the men of Jamestown Colony, though initially excluding some Polish immigrants, who were then enfranchised. Later the franchise was restricted to property owning white men. But Virginia’s assembly, like Britain’s parliament, was a safeguard against arbitrary power. The colony’s people were to have voice in their government, and not just subject to the crown through its appointed royal governor. Virginia’s assembly was crucial to refining the principle of no taxation without representation and asserting more rights, like religious freedom, freedom of speech, and other protections against capricious state power. The language of human equality emerged from the pens of George Mason and Thomas Jefferson, both slaveholders who still envisioned a better community of equal citizens.
These principles of legal equality and representative government shaped the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. They also guaranteed that in time slavery, so at odds with these principles, would be abolished and that former slaves, or at least their descendants, would someday self-govern no less than the descendants of slave owners.
This first gathering of Virginia’s elected representative assembly at Jamestown is the other 1619 project. It ensured the eventual defeat of the 1619 Project highlighted by The New York Times, which insisted that slavery and racial discrimination defined America. But slavery and discrimination are only a part of the story. The fight against both also defined and refined America, often through fire.
If slavery is America’s original sin, then arguably the first assembly at Jamestown was the instrument of eventual and ongoing redemption. Too many voices in America today bewail great social evils while denying redemption. But no society is covered only with guilt without the possibility of redemption.
At all times and places, we are called to work against social evils while also participating in social redemption. The Devil is always busy. But the Lord always presides. Where is He at work among us? Behold the great things He performs and will do.
America’s original sin and journey of redemption were transacted within yards of each other in tiny Jamestown village, the first at the shoreline with an infamous cargo, the second at the Jamestown church. We continue to live with the consequences of both. But the redemptive aspects of the first elected assembly will always prevail against the injustice and tyranny of the docks.