Jamestown and Plymouth

Landing-BaconThe first two colonies settled in what is now the United States were Jamestown and Plymouth. Though they were started several hundred years ago, the effect each of them has on the national consciousness continues to play a large, though rather subconscious role in the national mindset. Each was founded by English settlers within the same period of history and they represent perhaps the two primary pillars of American society, private enterprise and religious liberty.

In 1607, Captain John Smith and other adventurers landed in Jamestown, Virginia and started the very first permanent European settlement in North America. The Virginia Company of London funded the expedition, and the entire affair was meant to be a commercial enterprise. All of the proceeds would benefit the company. Importantly, this was a completely private endeavor and it held enormous amounts of risk. And for the first six years of its existence, Jamestown was largely considered a failure. Yet, through various providential means, it somehow survived and encouraged the further colonization of the region.

Thus the American South was put on a track to achieve great financial success and to establish perhaps the only aristocratic society in the modern history of North America. It romanticized the idea of private commerce. Unlike previous state-sponsored exploratory expeditions, this was the new way that country was being developed and improved. This impacted the American psyche greatly, perhaps most concretely with the Homestead acts which granted free land in the West to people willing to build on it.

In 1620, the colony at Plymouth was founded. The colonists were composed almost entirely of religious pilgrims fleeing persecution in England. With hope in their hearts, God on their minds, and the great unknown before them, they set about constructing a sanctuary of sorts in which they could worship as they chose. Their aim was to pursue a “New England” in which God’s laws reigned supreme and finally the Truth could be proclaimed openly. What they had in common with with the Jamestown settlers was the immense risk involved, the massive trials experienced, and the lasting fame given.

Therefore an important part of the American psyche, in addition to the aforementioned private enterprise notion stemming from Jamestown, became the idea of both religious tolerance and conviction. The Plymouth colonists believed that not only did they have the right to believe as they found proper, but also that they should hold to these beliefs with a conviction that would posses them to rip themselves away from everything they knew.

Each of the colonies had their own emblematic heroes which defined the ideals of the culture from which they came. For Plymouth, it was probably someone such as William Bradford. Bradford led the pilgrims after the death of John Carver. He was the ideal religious leader and thinker. Prompted with the others in his group to finally leave persecution in England, he went on to become the biographer of the whole attempt and showed that he was incredibly committed to the cause for which the colony was founded. Even though his first wife died before Plymouth was officially founded, he persevered in what he believed to be right. The heroic man in the eyes of the pilgrims was one who had an unflinching obedience to both God and conscience.

For Jamestown, it was most likely Captain John Smith. Of common breeding but noble spirit, John Smith was the quintessential self-made man. At sixteen, his father died, leaving him to seek his fortune in the world on his own. He fought in numerous wars in central Europe, was sold as a slave in the Ottoman Empire, and became an English admiral. He worked to instill discipline into the early Jamestown society, and perhaps prevented it from being abandoned in its early years. The ultimate hero to the men of the Virginia Company was someone who had the guts to stare defeat in the face and somehow make what good could be made of the situation.

Both of these personas put together exemplify the American hero. Americans love those who risk all for what they believe in, and come out the better for it. I think this is why George Washington is practically deified in modern society. Washington was a rather successful Virginia planter who had already had an illustrious military career before the Revolutionary War. He had an immense amount of conviction, enough to become an unashamed traitor to England and risk everything important in his life in order to set things right. He was both an adventurer and a man with strong convictions. He was brave, unwavering, and noble. However, I doubt he would have achieved as much posthumous fame if not for the colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth and the ideas which they gave birth to.

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