Trump Says That Colonial Virginia Teaches Us “Our nation’s priceless culture of freedom, independence, equality, justice, and self-determination under God.” Really?

Here is his speech:

5:00ff: Glad to see that Trump gives a shout out to the Jamestown Rediscovery Project and other preservation organizations.  He has no idea what the Jamestown Rediscovery Project does, but at least he recognized it.

5:54ff: Trump says that  the House of Burgesses was founded in 1619.  Yet if I understand my Virginia colonial history correctly, the House of Burgesses was not established until 1642.  Prior to 1642 the Virginia legislature was known as the Virginia General Assembly.

6:00ff: Trump says that the first members of this Virginia General Assembly had “struggled” and “suffered” and “sacrificed” in “pursuit of one wild and very improbable dream.  They called that dream ‘Virginia’.”  Last time I checked, very few of these settlers were “dreamers” in the way Trump makes them out to be.  Yes, they dreamed.  But they dreamed that they would strike it rich growing tobacco or, in the early years, some other cash crop.  They dreamed about using indentured servants and later enslaved Africans to maximize profits.  They pursued their own freedom at the expense of slave labor, a paradox that historian Edmund Morgan has described as “American Slavery–American Freedom.”

6:50ff:  Trump says that the first settlers to Jamestown came to “carve out a home.”  Far from it. Most of them came to get rich and get out.  The settlers did not have dreams of permanence. They did not dream about a future United States.

6:58ff:  Trump said the settlers “came from God and country.”  Not sure what this means.  Probably another teleprompter issue.

7:05ff:  Trump overplays the Christian founding of Jamestown and gives the history of settlement a providential spin. I wrote extensively about the way the Christian Right does this kind of thing in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

8:00ff:  Trump’s speechwriters are aware of the so-called “starving time” at Jamestown  Trump doesn’t mention, however, that the problem was not “crop failure” but “failure to grow crops.”

9:00ff: Trump says that the Jamestown settlers practiced what would become the “American character.”  He says they “worked hard, they had courage in abundance, and a wealth of self-reliance. They strived mightily to turn a profit.  They experimented with producing silk, corn, tobacco, and the very first Virginia wines.”  He then says that the Virginians “endured by the sweat of their labor, the aide of the Powhaton Indians, and the leadership of Captain John Smith.”  This, Trump says, “brought a way of life that would define the New World.”

This, of course, is all spin and very ahistorical. Many of the white leaders of Virginia did not “work hard.”  Many of them were “gentleman adventurers” who had no idea how to work. Very few of them “endured by the sweat of their labor.”  Yes, they tried to turn a profit, but they did so at the expense of feeding themselves and their neighbors. And, as noted above, they eventually relied upon indentured servants and slaves to help the settlement, and later colony, survive.  I don’t recognize Trump’s Jamestown.

10:30ff: Trump makes the Virginia Assembly sound like a popularly elected legislative body.  This was a body in which only the wealthy and powerful had representation and the right to make laws.  Whatever populism existed came later–when frontier settlers (former indentured servants) revolted (Bacon’s Rebellion) and burned Jamestown to the ground, forcing the royal governor to flee for his life.

12:30:  Trump mentions the so-called “20 And odd negroes” who arrived in 1619.  I am glad he did not ignore this.  To his credit, he also shows that Americans struggled, and largely failed, to apply equality to all people. But he fails to develop the implications of this argument.  It is like he merely checked-off a box.  The rest of his speech goes forward without any recognition of what slavery did to America.  This history is shallow. As might be expected, it is overwhelmed by Trump’s patriotic narrative.

Of course future historians who study this speech will interpret it in the context of Trump’s recent tweets about sending members of the House of Representatives “back to their countries” and his attacks on Elijah Cummings and the city of Baltimore.

14:45ff:  Trump makes the Whiggish leap from Jamestown to the American Revolution and the birth of American democracy.  His exceptionalism here completely ignores the fact that the English colonies got their ideas of representative government from England and that much of the Revolution could be understood as the consistent application of the British ideas that the colonies had imbibed by being loyal subjects of the empire.

15:15:  The protests begin.

16:00ff: Trump connects the great names of the Virginia founding era–Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Henry, Mason, Wythe, and Lee–to the founding of Jamestown and the founding of the United States.  Again, Trump needs to read Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  All of these families were able to produce sons of liberty because of the wealth they accumulated through slavery. This paradox, Morgan argues, is at the heart of the American republic.

17:55ff:  It is absurd to connect Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” to what happened in 17th-century Jamestown.  But Trump makes this connection with no nuance or complexity.

18:26ff:  Do we really want to “cherish the traditions” born in Jamestown, as Trump suggests we do?

19:30ff: Trump says that early Virginia has taught us that:

  • “The people will always be sovereign”
  • “Americans always take ownership of their future and control of their destiny.”
  • “Americans will always “take action,” “seize opportunities,” and “pursue the common good.”

No, Jamestown teaches us none of these lessons.  Instead it teaches us that only the wealthy are sovereign, most of the population could not control their destiny, only a few could “seize opportunities,” and no one was looking out consistently for the “common good.”

20:00ff:  Trump now draws a direct line between the settlers of Jamestown and the settlement of the West, the winning of the American Revolution, the ending of slavery, the securing of civil rights, the invention of the airplane, the end of communism, and the placing of the American flag on the moon.   This is Whig history run amok.  And somehow he even manages to connect Jamestown to the American exploration of Mars!

21:26: Trump keeps going: “But among all of America’s towering achievements, none exceeds the triumph we are here to celebrate today: our nation’s priceless culture of freedom, independence, equality, justice, and self-determination under God.”  Are these really the lessons history students should learn from colonial Virginia?

The one-minute protest at Trump’s speech is getting all the attention today, but we also must come to grips with the fact that Trump completely mishandled the past.

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