As Americans we are blessed to live in a country that is an aspirational meritocracy where every person has an equal opportunity in life. Our forefathers fought hard to establish the basis of a free and just society based on the ideal that a democratic republic would protect our rights, deriving its just powers from the consent of the people. Many Americans are unaware that American democracy was born 400 years ago in Virginia, a full year before the “pilgrims” arrived at Plymouth Rock. This year, the Commonwealth of Virginia is working to present accurate history — sharing its authentic, inclusive history.
Our complex history as Americans cannot be fully understood without examining several pivotal events in the course of human events — including the first representative assembly, the arrival of the first recorded Africans to English North America and the recruitment of English women in the new world. These events, which occurred in 1619 Virginia, have indelibly shaped and still have a profound effect on our nation today. Throughout 2019, the Commonwealth of Virginia is commemorating its long history of representative government and highlighting important events that occurred in the Virginia colony 400 years ago, which led us on a long and difficult path to become a more perfect free republic.
In April 1619, 400 years ago, Colonial Gov. George Yeardley arrived in Jamestown and announced that the Virginia Company of London had abolished martial law and, in its place, a legislative assembly would be established to govern the young Virginia colony. From July 30 to Aug. 4, 1619, Yeardley presided over the first meeting of this legislative assembly; convening a group of 22 male representatives from 11 Virginia boroughs at the newly built wooden church in Jamestown. This meeting in Virginia set America on the course toward the ideals of a free and just society.
The first Legislative Assembly focused on the important issues of the time — how to sustain the 12-year-old colony, commercial and economic arrangements, matters of religion, and how to manage relations with the Powhatan Indians. The Legislative Assembly launched a new society based on the rule of law and consent of the governed, which became the model for other English colonies. (Many of the issues the general assembly addressed in 1619 are issues we have wrestled with as a country in the succeeding 400 years).
This first official meeting ignited our nation’s democratic principles and was the formative event in establishing the United States’ current system of representative government. American democracy continued to evolve after this four-day meeting in Jamestown — first with our inspirational Declaration of Independence in July 1776, the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and crucial Bill of Rights, and then with the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments and the Civil Rights Act expanding and ensuring enfranchisement to all citizens. Compared to the Old World, our nation is still relatively young, yet our democratic governance has enabled the United States to become a vibrant leader in business, innovative technologies, science, communications and art. Importantly, and our system of government and free enterprise continue to advance and enact new laws adapting to current challenges facing American citizens in a more interconnected world.
Those earliest expressions of democracy in Jamestown established important guiding principles in our nation: The Jeffersonian freedom of religion (rights not enhanced nor diminished due to religion, nor establishment of a government-preferred religion); freedom of expression (without fear of retribution) for all men and women in a self-governing representative democracy; private ownership of property as the basis of the free enterprise system (rather than monarchy, church or government authority); and the rule of law where our natural rights are protected and there is fair adjudication of disputes. Today, we are a society governed by meritocracy, where every person — regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity or gender — has an equal opportunity to enjoy life, liberty and pursuit of their interests on a level playing field. Also, as a nation we continue to work toward the aspirational foundational principles of the free and just society that our Constitution established in 1788.
It’s fitting that we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first representative legislative assembly in Jamestown, the actual site of the first, and longest continually meeting, representative democratic institution in North America. On July 30, I will join Virginia’s 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution, members of the Virginia General Assembly, members of the U.S. Congress and other dignitaries in Jamestown for the 400th Anniversary of the First Representative Legislative Assembly and 400th Commemorative Session of the Virginia General Assembly.
Additionally, from July 30 to Aug. 1, the 2019 Commemoration and William & Mary will host American Evolution Forum on the Future of Representative Democracy, assembling representatives from democracies around the world, including the British Parliament, members of Congress and representatives from state legislatures nationwide. These events will engage national and world leaders to discuss the historic impact of representative democracy on our nation and on the world.
Responsible citizens will enjoy learning about our government’s birthplace and the 400-year arc of American democracy. I invite and encourage all Americans to visit Virginia this summer to learn about and commemorate the history of the Commonwealth’s important role in shaping our democracy. Join me walking through the Memorial Church in Jamestown, where the ideals of a free and just society were first born, creating what we appreciate today as our ever-improving United States of America.
• George Allen is a former governor of Virginia and was a U.S. senator.
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