Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy


By James Horn

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The essential history of the extraordinary year in which American democracy and American slavery emerged hand in hand in colonial Virginia.

Along the banks of the James River, Virginia, during an oppressively hot spell in the middle of summer 1619, two events occurred within a few weeks of each other that would profoundly shape the course of history. In the newly built church at Jamestown, the General Assembly — the first gathering of a representative governing body in America — came together. A few weeks later, a battered privateer entered the Chesapeake Bay carrying the first African slaves to land on mainland English America.

In 1619, historian James Horn sheds new light on the year that gave birth to the great paradox of our nation: slavery in the midst of freedom. This portentous year marked both the origin of the most important political development in American history, the rise of democracy, and the emergence of what would in time become one of the nation’s greatest challenges: the corrosive legacy of racial inequality that has afflicted America since its beginning.


FRONTISPIECEThe General Assembly was the first representative governing body in America, convened at Jamestown, July 30–August 4, 1619. John Pory’s Report of the Proceedings of the General Assembly. Permission from the National Archives, UK.

Author’s Note

FOR THE CONVENIENCE OF THE READER, I HAVE ALTERED THE spelling and punctuation of historical passages to make them conform to modern conventions but have retained original capitalization to offer an impression of the original sources. No substantive changes of any sort have been made to direct quotations.



ALONG THE BANKS OF THE JAMES RIVER, VIRGINIA, during an oppressively hot spell in the middle of summer 1619, two events occurred within a few weeks of each other that would profoundly shape the course of history. Convened with little fanfare or formality, the first gathering of a representative governing body anywhere in the Americas, the General Assembly, met from July 30 to August 4 in the choir of the newly built church at Jamestown. Following instructions from the Virginia Company of London, the colony’s financial backers, the meeting’s principal purpose was to introduce “just Laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people.” The assembly sat as a single body and was made up of the governor, Sir George Yeardley, his four councilors, and twenty-two burgesses chosen by the free, white, male inhabitants of every town, corporation, and large plantation throughout the colony.1

A few weeks later, a battered English privateer, the White Lion, entered the Chesapeake Bay and anchored off Point Comfort, a small but thriving maritime community at the mouth of the James River that was the first port of call for oceangoing ships. While roving in the Caribbean, the ship, together with its companion, the Treasurer, had been involved in a fierce battle with a Portuguese slaver bound for Veracruz. Victorious, the two privateers pillaged the Portuguese vessel and sailed away northward carrying dozens of enslaved Africans. Running short of water and provisions, they headed for the nearest English haven, Virginia, where a couple of weeks later the prominent planter John Rolfe reported that the White Lion had “brought not anything but 20. and odd Negroes,” who were “bought” (my italics) for food supplies. The Treasurer entered the James River a few days later but opted to leave quickly, possibly after clandestinely selling some of the African captives on board. Forcibly transported from West Central Africa (modern-day Angola), they were the first Africans to arrive in mainland English America.2

No one in Virginia in 1619 or in the years following could have possibly grasped the importance of what had occurred. Settlers understood that the assembly allowed them to have a hand in governing themselves, but they were motivated more by opportunities to approve laws sent by the Virginia Company from London and to propose their own legislation rather than by abstract concepts of self-government or subjects’ rights and liberties. Equally, no documented discussion took place in the colony about the morality of owning and enslaving Africans. Deliberations in future general assemblies at Jamestown, as mirrored later in colonial legislatures across English America, focused far more on policing measures against Africans and protecting the rights of masters than on the rights of the enslaved or ethical considerations. Slavery, African and Indian, together with a broad spectrum of white non-freedom—apprenticeships, convict labor, and serfdom—were simply taken for granted in the emerging Atlantic world of the time and elicited little comment.3

Yet the coincidence of the meeting of the first representative government and arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the summer of 1619 was portentous. Historians have argued that the rise of liberty and equality in America, America’s democratic experiment, was shadowed from its beginning by its dark obverse: slavery and racism. Slavery in the midst of freedom, Edmund Morgan writes, was the central paradox of the birth of America. The rapid expansion of opportunities for Europeans was made possible only by the enslavement and exploitation of African and Indian peoples. Non-Europeans were consigned to a permanent underclass excluded from the benefits of white society, while Europeans profited enormously from the fruits of the labors of those they oppressed. Arguably, then, 1619 marks the inception of the most important political development in American history, the rise of democracy, and the emergence of what would in time become one of the nation’s greatest challenges: the corrosive legacy of racial stereotypes that continues to afflict our society today.4

DESPITE THE SIGNIFICANCE OF 1619 AND SURROUNDING years, this period is almost entirely unknown to the public. Insofar as any attention has been given to early Virginia, the dominant narrative portrays Jamestown as an unqualified disaster, little more than a “dismal and fraught” precursor of the successful godly settlements in New England where, so it goes, America’s story really begins. For the nation at large, Plymouth in 1620 or the founding of the Puritan colony of Massachusetts a decade later exerts a far greater influence on our collective historical memory than the founding of Virginia in 1607 or the events of 1619. This is especially perplexing considering that what took place in early Jamestown had far-reaching implications for all English colonies that followed in Virginia’s wake, as well as eventually on the creation of the United States itself.5

Owing to numerous setbacks, the Virginia colony struggled in its early years, leading the Company to introduce wholesale reforms in an effort to save the colony from collapse. Still largely an experimental period in England’s empire-building trajectory, the import of 1619 derives from the consequential philosophical and political assumptions that guided the reforms, though they in turn led to unforeseen and tragic outcomes that ultimately brought an end to the project. Instigated by the highly respected parliamentarian and leader of the Virginia Company, Sir Edwin Sandys (pronounced Sands), propertied white males in the colony were granted remarkable political freedoms as well as opportunities to share in the running of their own affairs. In addition, plans were put in place to promote a harmonious society where diverse peoples and religious groups would live together side by side in peace to their mutual benefit. Because so many influential parliamentary leaders were involved with the Company, proposals for Virginia were informed by the wide-ranging political debates taking place simultaneously at James I’s court and in Parliament, which linked developments in the fledgling colony to domestic and international issues of momentous consequence. By 1619, the Virginia Company was recognized by many in high political circles as a laboratory for some of the most advanced constitutional thinking of the age.

Company leaders grounded their efforts to establish a godly and equitable society in the philosophical theory of the commonwealth. The term commonwealth, or the “common weal,” emerged in Europe in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and brought together a variety of political and economic precepts that highlighted the common good of the people. Particular emphasis was given to the importance of wise and noble rulers and mixed government—a salutary balance of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—as well as Christian morality, prosperity, and social well-being. Linked to Renaissance humanist ideas, statesmen and intellectuals believed that the application of rational approaches to government and social and economic organization would encourage the improvement of societies and the human condition. Where better to test these ideals than the New World? In Virginia, commonwealth theory guided the leadership’s approach to every facet of the emerging colony, including government, the rule of law, protections for private property, the organization of the local economy, and relations with the Powhatans, the Indian peoples whose territories surrounded English settlements. The great reforms introduced in 1619, therefore, were all-encompassing, not directed simply toward the creation of a legislative body.6

Embracing diversity was also integral to the Virginia Company’s plans. “Multitudes” of settlers were to be drawn from all ranks of society and from all parts of the country. England’s first mass Atlantic migration, which was initiated by the Company, underlined the Company’s desire to translate large sections of English society to the growing colony. But settlement of the colony would not only depend on immigrants from England; Sandys and his supporters were committed also to incorporating Indian peoples into their newly reformed commonwealth as full members of society, an ambition without precedent in the New World. Symbolized by the conversion of Pocahontas, daughter of the Powhatan chieftain, to Anglicanism and her marriage to gentleman-planter John Rolfe at Jamestown, the Company aspired to bring the entire Powhatan people to Protestantism and the Church of England—a necessary precondition for their conversion to English ways and absorption into English Virginia.

Enslaved Africans, however, were not part of Sandys’s plans for the colony. The rapid spread of tobacco husbandry in the colony after 1614 dismayed Company leaders, who promoted a mixed economy based on a wide variety of natural commodities and manufactured goods that they anticipated would offer plenty of work for settlers and create broad-based economic equality across the colony. Slaves would be unnecessary. Instead, white workers and converted Indian peoples would provide the workforce as self-sufficient and equal members of their communities, thereby strengthening relations between the English and Powhatans.7

WITHIN A FEW YEARS, SANDYS’S DREAM OF A MODEL AMERICAN commonwealth had been shattered. A series of disasters, including a massive attack by Powhatan warriors that killed hundreds of settlers, political intrigue involving the king and his ministers, and deep divisions among Company leaders in London, ultimately led to the Company’s collapse. The colony survived, however, which attested to the commercial success of preceding years, but after 1625 in the absence of Company rule, a quite different society emerged from that promoted by Sandys. A commonwealth was founded on the well-being of the people as a whole, not the few; this was a fundamental principle emphasized by classical philosophers of Greece and Rome as well as by leading statesmen of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Sandys and other Company officers adopted initiatives they believed would stimulate prosperity for broad sections of society and sought to prevent wealthy planters from gaining excessive influence in the colony. These measures involved limitations on the powers of the governor and his councilors, an emphasis on the rule of law, and the founding of the General Assembly, which was created specifically to represent the majority of settlers, not only the rich. The Company’s wholehearted support of reformed Anglicanism and Christian morality encouraged neighborly support and care for others as well as individual piety and moral discipline.

Following the Company’s demise, efforts and legislation put in place to encourage the common good and a widespread equality of interests were quickly abandoned. Even before the collapse of the Company, conspicuous disparities in wealth had begun to surface. Soon after tobacco became established as the colony’s principal commodity, a boom in the price of tobacco leaf on the London market enabled a small group of planters and government officials to become extremely rich by steadily amassing land and laborers. After the Powhatan attack of 1622 that nearly destroyed the colony, racial stereotypes demonizing the Indians were quickly adopted by settlers to justify the slaughter of Indian peoples and appropriation of their territory. Huge areas of prime agricultural lands were taken up by settlers, creating the first English land rush in America. Some Powhatan captives were enslaved and joined Africans in bondage; other Indian peoples moved out of the region beyond the reach of settlers.8

The Company’s commonwealth project was also condemned by critics for being dangerously egalitarian. Captain John Bargrave, a prominent merchant-planter, wrote forcefully that the “mouth of equal liberty must needs be stopped,” denouncing what he saw as the overt populist tendencies among Company leaders, including Sandys. “Extreme liberty,” he warned, was more perilous to the political and social order than “extreme tyranny.” Political leadership, lauded among the responsible, propertied classes, was not deemed suitable for the poor and landless who comprised the vast majority of people in early modern society. It was axiomatic among the upper classes that poor people’s lack of independence, property, and education disqualified them from prominent roles in society. In Virginia, where poor workers made up a far higher percentage of the total population than in England, political power rapidly became concentrated in the hands of small groups of wealthy planters who, largely autonomous in their own localities and insulated from close oversight by English government officials three and a half thousand miles away, became accustomed to a freedom of action unthinkable at home.

While Virginia and the American colonies were attractive to countless middle-class British immigrants and other Europeans during the seventeenth century precisely because of the perceived benefits of political and economic liberty, those very freedoms permitted the wholesale and largely unchecked exploitation of lower-class whites, Africans, and Indians. For most poor English settlers, crossing the Atlantic to Virginia or other colonies was a gamble of heroic proportions whereby a fortunate few might succeed in vastly improving their material condition through luck, hard work, and timing, but the great majority did not. For the mass of Indian and African peoples, of course, even the faintest glimmer of hope of personal improvement was denied them. Slavery and inequality thus arose as synchronic opposites of liberty and opportunity, products of the same political and economic forces.

AT THE DAWN OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE IN AMERICA, IT WAS unclear how colonies would evolve. Would they be little more than “pirate nests,” as feared by successive Spanish ambassadors in London, or develop as fishing stations and trading posts such as those founded in Newfoundland by different nations or along the Hudson River by the Dutch? Or would they become stable and prosperous British settlements that would eventually spread across the entire northern continent?

Virginia was the first of England’s settlements in America to persist and ultimately flourish. The great reforms of 1619 that took place at Jamestown had an enduring influence on the development of Virginia and British America and heralded the opening of an extended Anglo-American examination of sovereignty, individual rights, liberty, and constitutionalism that would influence all Britain’s colonies. Representative government spread outward across the continent, beginning the vital democratic experiment that has characterized American society down to our own times. Concurrently, Virginia’s early adoption of slavery and dispossession of Indian peoples reflected and reinforced racial attitudes that began the highly discriminatory processes that have stigmatized society ever since. Such were the conflicted origins of modern America.9



We hope to plant a nation,

Where none before hath stood.

—Richard Rich (1610)

That no man blaspheme God’s holy name upon pain of death, or use unlawful oaths, taking the name of God in vain… upon pain of severe punishment for the first offense so committed, and for the second to have a bodkin thrust through his tongue.

—Laws Divine, Moral, and Martial (1609–1611)

JAMESTOWN WAS UNASHAMEDLY A COMMERCIAL VENTURE. Founded by royal charter in April 1606, the Virginia Company was the latest of a number of trading companies that had blossomed during the previous half century, evidence of the growing wealth and global reach of English, especially London’s, merchants. “All Kingdoms,” an anonymous writer pointed out to the secretary of state, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, “are maintained by Rents or Traffic [trade], but especially by the latter, which in maritime places most flourish by means of Navigation.” Companies enabled sovereigns to promote overseas expansion and commerce while at the same time adopting the convenient fiction that they had little direct involvement in the creation of empire.1

Led by some of the ablest merchants and statesmen of the day and inspired by a generation of promoters of American colonies, the Virginia Company set out to create a burgeoning transatlantic trade by the establishment of permanent settlements in the Chesapeake Bay and New England regions. Company leaders, including Cecil, were confident that thriving industries could be established in America and products exported back to England, thereby lessening the country’s dependence on imports from Europe and elsewhere. To ensure they had the best possible workers, the Company recruited skilled artisans from England and overseas: Italian glassworkers; Polish and German experts in the production of industrial commodities and valuable minerals; vignerons from Languedoc, France, to cultivate the colony’s vines that had been recently imported from the Canaries. The men were said to be skilled also in the manufacture of silk. John Pory, writing from Jamestown to Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer and chief promoter of the Company, was especially enthusiastic about the colony’s potential for producing wine (he was reputed to be a heavy drinker). Once vineyards were established, he believed Virginia would yield enough wine to “lade all the ships that come” with vintages as good as those of France and Spain.2

John Pory was a perceptive man. Educated at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and connected to the highest ranks of English society, he combined a gift for languages with a taste for travel and diplomacy, having spent several years in Europe and the Levant. As the recently appointed secretary of Virginia, he painted a vivid picture of Jamestown’s fledgling society for Company leaders in London. English plows and cattle, he remarked at the end of September 1619, would soon bring the “Colony to perfection.” The land was marvelously fertile and once tilled would support both a plentiful crop of wheat and abundant Indian corn in a single year. The planting of mulberry trees would lead to a thriving silk industry, while cattle and other livestock were increasing quickly and would be a steady source of income for planters. By adapting English husbandry practices to the new conditions, Pory had no doubt that settlers would “produce miracles out of this earth,” which in turn would supply ample provisions for the hundreds of new arrivals the Company was sending over.3

Already, considerable fortunes were being made. Tobacco cultivation had spread rapidly over the previous five years as a growing number of colonists took up prime lands along the James River valley and discovered the benefit of the lucrative cash crop. “All our riches for the present do consist in tobacco,” Pory commented wryly, so that even “our Cow-keeper here of James City on Sundays goes accoutered [dressed] all in fresh flaming silks, and a wife of one that in England had professed the black art not of a scholar but of a collier of Croydon, wears her rough beaver hat with a fair pearl hatband and a silken suit.” With tobacco commanding high prices in London, one man had made a profit of £200 in a year from just his own labor. Planters with the help of their field-workers could make much more; a man with six servants had earned £1,000 from one crop, an extraordinary sum considering that a common day laborer in England might earn only £12 annually. Although such returns were unusual, they were nevertheless possible. Here, seemingly, were opportunities for ordinary people to get rich by their own hard work and for the wealthy and well placed to become richer still. No better example could be found than the new governor himself. Sir George Yeardley had first arrived in the colony a decade earlier with little more than his sword, Pory commented, but when in London shortly before returning to Jamestown, he and his lady had spent a small fortune to furnish his forthcoming voyage. It would not be long before the governorship of Virginia, he wrote, would be worth as much as the highly lucrative office of lord deputy of Ireland.4

The colony was changing dramatically. Several years earlier, Virginia could count only a few hundred settlers living in a half dozen small English settlements, but by the spring of 1620, more than two dozen communities had been established from the mouth of the James River to the falls a hundred miles upriver, and the settler population had quadrupled. Tens of thousands of acres had been taken up by private investors who—with the Company’s blessing—were encouraged to transport their own laborers to the colony, thereby adding to the flow of new arrivals and rapid expansion of settlement. As a consequence of new initiatives introduced by Company leader Edwin Sandys, the country was flourishing, the English were at peace with local Indian peoples, the Powhatans, and Virginia appeared destined for a period of prolonged stability and prosperity.5

The abundance and prosperity described by Pory were a far cry from the disasters that had blighted Jamestown’s first decade. Among these were the heavy loss of life, lengthy hostilities against the Powhatans, and a desperate lack of profitable returns to investors. Jamestown might well have become another “lost colony” alongside Roanoke had not the immensely influential Earl of Salisbury, the London merchant prince Sir Thomas Smythe, and other prominent leaders, including Sandys, decided to intervene and thoroughly overhaul the organization of the Company and colony in 1608–1609. This first phase of reform was in some respects a foreshadowing of their later attempts to build a true commonwealth—for example, in their emphasis on converting the Indians to the Church of England—but was completely different in regard to governing and leadership. What was required, the Company believed, was the enforcement of law and order by an authoritarian government in Virginia led by an all-powerful lord governor and captain general.

In retrospect, a military regime and martial law proved necessary to sustain the colony through the coming years of war and the immediate aftermath, yet it was not at all conducive to the development of an expansive civilian society necessary for growth and prosperity in postwar Virginia. The formidable challenges of the first ten years played a key role in shaping the comprehensive reforms launched by Sir Edwin Sandys and his supporters in 1619.

IN THE WINTER OF 1606, THE LEADERS OF THE FIRST EXPEDITION to Virginia received a series of detailed instructions, which illustrate the high hopes of the Company on the eve of the venture. The colony was to be governed by a small council of prominent settlers appointed by the Company. Once they arrived in Virginia, they would elect a “president” from among their own number who would oversee the colony for up to a year. The leaders of the expedition were ordered to ensure their initial settlement was located on a prominent river about a hundred miles from the ocean, a precaution to reduce the risk of attack from the sea by a hostile enemy, notably Spain, and to position settlers close to the mountains inland, where the discovery of a passage might lead them through the North American landmass to the Pacific Ocean, believed to be only a few hundred miles from the Atlantic coast. Settlers were also instructed to take advantage of trade with Indian peoples from surrounding regions and to search for any existing gold or silver mines.6

In the context of the times, these aspirations were quite realistic. The belief that North America had vast riches yet to be discovered was commonplace in Europe by the mid-sixteenth century. Spectacular Spanish discoveries and the pillaging of Indian peoples in the Caribbean, Middle America, and South America had confirmed the existence of enormous wealth in new lands (new to Europeans). A century earlier, the English had been among the first European nations to cross the Atlantic but missed the opportunity to capitalize on their discoveries of the North American mainland, much to the exasperation of early promoters such as Richard Eden. Had we not lacked “manly courage,” he complained, “it might happily have come to pass that that rich treasury called Perularia (which is now in Spain in the city of Seville, and so named for that in it is kept the infinite riches brought thither from the newfound land of Peru) might long since had been in the Tower of London, to the king’s great honor and wealth of this his realm.”


  • “James Horn’s 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy tells the story of this momentous year, when colonial founders tried to put into place the kind of rational, civil society Americans today might see as our own goal as we live through yet another fractious era in American history. If anyone today knows colonial Virginia, it is James Horn.”
     —Wall Street Journal
  • "Horn's elegant story-telling and plain prose, supported by a wealth of scholarship and knowledge of the founding of Virginia, provide an easily read journey in time as we are introduced to the details of Virginia's early decades."—Roanoke Times
  • "Readers may question whether the 1619 election deeply influenced our institutions, but it was the first, and Horn has expertly illuminated a little-known era following Jamestown's settlement."—Kirkus
  • "Horn's observations allow for a better understanding of the colonists' conflicting views toward Native peoples in this well-documented work for readers of history, especially the precolonial era."—Library Journal
  • "Horn's detailed analysis of events reveals how these twin events foreshadowed what would culminate in America's birth as a nation."—Booklist
  • "This well-told account is strongest in its exploration of the conflicts among various English factions: in the 17th century, the utopian ideals of the earliest colonists clashed with and succumbed to mercantilist designs of private property, government by an elite planter class, conquest, and slavery."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Freedom and slavery in America were born at the same time and the same place, two hundred years ago in Virginia. Master historian James Horn tells these two inextricably linked stories in his powerful new book, 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy. Inspired by a vision of establishing a just commonwealth, the Virginia Company authorized the first meeting of an elected legislature in English America in late July or early August; a few weeks later an English privateer sold approximately 20 enslaved Africans to Virginia planters. If at the first the coincidence seemed unremarkable to colonists, its consequences soon proved fateful for Virginia-and ultimately for America. If the tragic legacies of racial slavery are still with us, so too is the possibility of progress in an enlightened, self-governing commonwealth."—Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia
  • "No one today knows more about early Virginia than James Horn. In evocative and clear-headed prose, he dissects the core events of its turbulent founding to reveal how the rule of law and self-government took hold the same year that the arrival of Africans in Jamestown announced English Americans' horrific original sin. 1619, built from Horn's unparalleled mastery of a vast body of evidence, is the most thoughtful book we have on this formative moment in our nation's history."—Peter C. Mancall, author of Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudsons
  • "Mix English political theory, several hundred settlers trying to better themselves, and a shipload of slaves; add four centuries, and you have America. James Horn explains why Jamestown is our national starting point."—Richard Brookhiser, author of John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court

On Sale
Oct 16, 2018
Page Count
288 pages
Basic Books

James Horn

About the Author

James Horn is the president of Jamestown Rediscovery. He is author and editor of eight books on colonial America, including 1619 and A Land as God Made It. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.  

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