Alan Taylor: A fresh look at the founding fathers

Roundup: Talking About History

[Alan Taylor is a professor of American history at the University of California at Davis and the author, most recently, of The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (Knopf). ]

Nothing succeeds like success in America, especially in the writing of popular history. Readers long to know how the United States became the world's grandest nation and who should get the glory as our founding heroes. In recent years, publishers have thrived off peddling the so-called Founding Fathers, the leaders of the American Revolution who created the United States with a republican government. But this year's celebration of a quadricentennial invites attention to an earlier spate of founders: the English colonists of Jamestown in Virginia, first settled in 1607. The queen of England and the usually reclusive American vice president have attended the festivities at Jamestown's ruins. A recent Hollywood epic gave us Colin Farrell as Captain John Smith. And now a spate of timely books insist that James- town was the singular seed, birthplace, font, or cradle of all good things American. One writer even claims that "the Amer- ican Dream was born on the banks of the James River."

In fact, early Jamestown looks more like a nightmare of folly, hunger, disease, and violence. The colonists' London-based corporate sponsor, the Virginia Company, naïvely instructed the colonial leaders never to allow the Indians to see any English people die, lest the natives learn that the colonists were mere mortals. This instruction quickly proved impossible to follow as the colonists died in droves from disease and malnutrition. Of the initial 104 settlers who arrived in April 1607, just thirty-eight were still living nine months later. The continued shipments of newcomers kept the colony barely alive. In the spring of 1609 there were 220 colonists, but only sixty of them survived the winter. One starving colonist killed and ate his wife, for which he was burned at the stake....

[Benjamin] Woolley [the author of Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America] apparently views Jamestown's legacy for America as a heart of darkness rather than a birth of freedom. This possibility casts a more ominous light on his opening and closing images of the global power now manifested near Jamestown. The rivers flowing into the Chesapeake Bay host both "the largest naval base in the world" at Norfolk and the capital of "a new Rome Washington, D.C." Although he will not say so directly, Woolley hints that American success is tainted by its bloody origins at Jamestown. If so, the rest of the world should duck for cover.

Woolley occasionally grasps at [Karen Ordahl]Kupperman's straw [in The Jamestown Project]: that Americans today think too little of Jamestown because they think too much of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. In a hyperbolic vein, he laments "Virginia's erasure from popular history as the birthplace of English America." It seems quaintly old-fashioned when Woolley and Kupperman insist that the Pilgrims steal the show. Maybe this was so in the nineteenth century, but our own popular culture clearly prefers Jamestown, as the current spate of books attests. Thanks especially to a Disney animated film, the First Thanksgiving has been eclipsed by the Great Rescue of Captain John Smith by Pocahontas. In public allure, a last-minute reprieve from death (with a hint of cross-cultural sex) will always beat a staid meal accompanied by prayer. Many more Americans can name John Smith and Pocahontas than can identify any one of the Pilgrims, who in comparison to the dashing captain and his Indian princess seem dour, dull, and irrelevant: the boring has-beens and killjoys of the colonial party.

But it is not clear why we have to choose between Plymouth and James- town in a zero-sum game of American origins. That old and distorting contest derives from the eve of the Civil War, when the champions of the American South and New England squabbled over which region had most shaped American institutions and the American character. In fact, we need both colonial Plymouth and colonial Jamestown to make sense of our national origins, for Virginia and New England became essential partners in making our republic and then in unmaking it during the Civil War. Now employed mainly to sell books, the wearisome debate over a singular American cradle casts more heat than light.

And why must we limit our choice to any one English settlement when the United States also emerged from other colonial clusters, including the Swedes and Finns along the Delaware River and the Dutch in the Hudson Valley? Kupperman knows that the Spanish preceded the English within the future bounds of the United States, founding Florida in 1565 and New Mexico in 1598, but she recycles the old conceit that only the English can qualify as our founders: "the outlines of a genuinely American Society, with all its virtues and defects, first emerged along the James [River]." Were not Florida and New Mexico, with their own virtues and defects, not already American societies? What magic does the James River bestow that exceeds the magic of the Rio Grande as the fountain of America? Anyway, the celebration of any one European settlement as the sole cradle of our America continues to discount the role of native peoples, who have sustained "genuinely American" societies for at least fifteen thousand years. If we must search for founders, we should begin with them.
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