On May 14, America will commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. The occasion provides us with an opportunity to understand and celebrate the distinctive, secular ideal underlying America’s freedom and prosperity.
Although many Americans recognize that Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in North America (predating the Pilgrims and Puritans of Massachusetts by over a decade), too many mistakenly view the religious ethos of the New England colonies as the impetus for America’s flourishing. But the religious colonists, whose moral outlook stands opposed to our ideals of intellectual and political liberty, merely transplanted Old World ideas to new soil. The New World that promised opportunity and progress had begun in Jamestown, where the defining spirit of American individualism was born.
The Jamestown settlement project began, not as a Puritan escape to pursue and enforce a dogmatic faith, but with a group of profit-seeking investors in London pooling capital in a joint-stock company, a forerunner of our modern corporations. Members of the Virginia Company had organized with the goal of uncovering economic opportunity in North America by finding precious metals and possibly a water route to the Pacific.
The intrepid band of 104 adventurers who survived the Atlantic journey, braved a forbidding wilderness, established Jamestown, and faced extreme peril. In its first fragile decade, Jamestown lost hundreds of settlers to disease, starvation, and war, with casualty rates in one harsh winter reaching 80 percent of the colony. Eventually, under the deft leadership of Captain John Smith, the colony weathered these trials to emerge with renewed resolve. Smith himself had risen from modest circumstances in England to lead these adventurers, and he saw America as a land where his kind of self-reliance could flourish.
Though the Virginia Company found little gold and no sea route to Asia, they soon discovered something vastly more important–that economic opportunity lay wherever men were left free to work and create new wealth. In contrast to the rigid class structure and static economy of Jacobean England, America promised rewards based on individual merit. It was this spirit, and not the Puritan belief in cosmic predestination and unthinking duty to God, that attracted men to pursue their own earthly success in the New World.
“Here every man may be master and owner of his own labor and land,” Smith noted in one of his many promotional books intended to attract new settlers to America. “If he have nothing but his hands,” he boasted, “he may set up his trade, and by industry quickly grow rich.” For Smith and the other early settlers of Jamestown, the profound significance of America lay in the possibility that a man could choose, pursue, and realize his own destiny–it lay in a new ideal of individual liberty.
By the late eighteenth century, under the growing influence of that ideal, the colonists began to resist and protest against British imperial controls on their economic and political freedom, which led to the American Revolution. In framing our constitutional government, the Founders put individualism into political practice by protecting individual rights against the claims of any cleric, monarch, or legislative majority. The new nation’s founding ideals had emerged in opposition to the religious morality that entailed obedience to Biblical teachings and authority, conformity to the group, and condemnation of worldliness and material success.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the individualist spirit born in Jamestown brought countless millions to America, each looking to create a better life for himself. Through the years, that spirit has fostered untold prosperity by encouraging self-reliant innovators like Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, or James J. Hill. Its legacy lives on in America today, in anyone who believes that each individual owns his own life and has an inalienable right to pursue his own happiness.
In the centuries since Jamestown, America has thrived because of this distinctive ideal–an ideal in marked contrast not only to America’s religious colonies but also to the rest of the world today, where duty to the group or to divine command still subjugates millions.
Americans should pause to celebrate the full significance of the Jamestown anniversary as an opportunity to appreciate and rededicate themselves to America’s noble spirit of individualism. Doing so will help remind us of the need to defend this value from those who would compromise or attack it. Doing any less would be an act of injustice to those brave men who helped to shape our most important institutions.