It happened today - July 30, 2015

July 30 is a great day for liberty. And a dark day. It’s a great day because on July 30 of 1619 the first representative assembly in the New World met in Jamestown, Virginia just 12 years after the remarkably rocky founding of that British colony. It’s a dark day because it was in that same year in that same place, though not on the same day, that the first Negro slaves were sold. How could the same people have done both?

I have often commented on the everyday miracle of the colonists creating representative government in the midst of hunger, sickness and terrible trouble with their Indian neighbours, without seeking anyone’s permission, simply because that’s what Englishmen did, being free. It was at once stunningly bold and absolutely conventional.

It continues to inspire me. But then there’s the slavery thing.

How could people so devoted to liberty be so obtuse about denying liberty to others? Of course slavery was not fully developed institutionally or legally in Jamestown in 1619, any more than legislative control of the executive was. But every step they took on slavery from then on was wrong just as almost every step they took on self-government in every other respect was right. How can this be?

It’s easy to explain if you regard American freedom as essentially a fraud, a system of privilege for a small elite or white men generally built, necessarily, on the denial of rights to others. But if you take a less structurally conspiratorial view it is a major problem to explain it.

It might become tempting to make excuses, from a general claim that people in the past were dim compared to us to an acknowledgement that many people including white indentured servants in Virginia enjoyed unpleasantly limited legal status in the 17th century to the fact that life was tough all over back then and thus a certain callousness is understandable. But it won’t do.

The men and, eventually, women who settled Jamestown and later Virginia were human beings like ourselves and moral actors and even once all the extenuating circumstances are given their due weight the fact remains that on this count of the indictment they are grotesquely guilty. Struggle as I may, including in teaching a 4th-year seminar on the history of American slavery at the University of Ottawa, I still do not see how they could have been so consistently blind from 1619 down through 1860 and beyond. Especially as slavery is as old as rock against head but racial slavery, which flourished from the earliest European “voyages of discovery” in the 15th century, was a new and specially horrible form of this already brutal institution.

The story of representative government and slavery taking root in the same place in the same year in what really did become in most respects the unchallenged “land of the free” is, I remind my students, a sobering reminder of the evil of which otherwise thoroughly decent people can be guilty, even casually.

By the way what saved the fragile Jamestown colony was the discovery by John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas and whose journal records the arrival of the first slaves “About the latter end of August”, that tobacco grew splendidly in the soil of Virginia, just when the smoking craze was sweeping England to the horror of James I, who unleashed a very diverting 1604 polemical “Counterblaste to Tobacco” and at least got that one right. Nowadays we’re probably almost as horrified at the tobacco as the slavery. And the early European settlers’ blindness to the hypocrisy as well as the evil of racial slavery prompts uncomfortable reflections, unless you are fatuously self-satisfied about modernity, as to which aspects of our conduct will strike posterity as equally bewilderingly blatantly wrong.

When I brought this issue up in one seminar and suggested that abortion on demand might qualify, one of my students responded that our neglect of animal rights might baffle future generations. I can’t be sure, though I’m still more inclined to think it will be abortion. But in any case, since I know I’m not a superior kind of sentient being to the colonists in Jamestown, I am kept at least somewhat humble by the thought that there will probably be something and that, of course, if we knew what it was we wouldn’t be doing it so it would be something else.

Even if we have our principles right, we cannot afford to be careless about examining our fidelity to them in practice. Not in 1619 and not in 2015.