Ken Plum: Beginning of representative government
Four hundred years ago yesterday, July 30, 1619, a group of 22 colonists met in the wooden and mud church on Jamestowne Island as instructed by the investors of the colony “to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia” and to provide “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.” They adjourned on August 4. That event is variously described as the beginning of representative government in America and as the beginning of the oldest continuous law-making body in the western hemisphere. It merits the commemoration it is receiving.
In order to fully understand the importance of a signature event as this one, I believe it is important to put it into perspective as our knowledge of what happened afterwards allows us to do. While termed the beginning of representative government, the first legislative meeting was anything but representative. Only white males could vote or serve in the Assembly. The indigenous people–called Indians because one of the purposes of sailing to this new world was to find a shorter route to India–were not able to participate even though they had inhabited the land for at least 15,000 years. Not only were they kept out of the Assembly, they were forced off their lands where they had their homes, governance, religion, and farms. In less than a half century the immigrants had taken over the land and displaced the indigenous people.
Nor could women take part in that first Assembly because they did not arrive in Virginia until 1619 and did not secure the vote until three centuries later! Enslaved people from Africa did not arrive in the colony until 1619 and not only were they not in the First Assembly but they were the subject of laws in subsequent sessions of oppressive slave codes that denied them basic human rights. It was necessary in the beginnings of the Assembly to belong to and pay taxes to the established church.
The history of Virginia and of America has been to move from this humble beginning and through decades and centuries of events to evolve into what is more closely a representative government. The planners of the events surrounding 1619 have correctly I believe termed it “evolution.” Contrary to what some may have us believe, our state and our country did not start out meeting the ideals and vision that we have. We have built on a humble beginning to evolve into the country we are today.
I trust that this important celebration will not be allowed to be taken over by an ignorance of what happened at Jamestowne and turned into a biased partisan view to justify the terrible actions of government today against people of color, people from other lands, and people in the LGBTQ communities. We do not need to try to return to a past that was much more imperfect than we sometimes care to admit. I am attending the Commemorative Session of the General Assembly to learn more about the past and how we can learn from our experiences and evolve further into a more perfect union. I will not be attending the session with POTUS.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.
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