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.

Were the “20. and Odd Negroes” Slaves or Indentured Servants?


Is this sign factually correct?

In an interview with Gayle King of CBS News, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam referred to the first enslaved Africans to Virginia in 1619 as “indentured servants.”

Blogger Kevin Levin has a short post on Northam’s comment here.  A taste:

At the outset of the interview the governor references the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia’s shores in 1619, only he chose to refer to these slaves as indentured servants. King quickly responded by correcting the governor that he meant to say slavery. My social media streams quickly lit up with reactions to the oversight.

They included some people who suggested that the governor was correct in referring to the first Africans as indentured servants. They noted that a system of African slavery took time to evolve as the primary form of labor in colonial Virginia. This is true. Historians such as Ira Berlin have shown that for much of the seventeenth century African slaves worked side by side Native Americans and even white indentured servants. It was even possible for a small number of Africans to gain their freedom.

The larger question, however, of how Virginia went from – in the words of historian Edmund Morgan, ‘a society with slaves’ to a ‘slave society’ – is separate from the status of the Africans who arrived in 1619. Earlier today historian Rebecca Ann Goetz clarified this question with a twitter thread clarifying that these Africans were indeed slaves.

Read the entire post here.

Rebecca Goetz‘s tweet thread is worth reading.  She is a history professor at New York University and the author of The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race.  Here it is:

Addendum from reader Matt Gottlieb:

While I appreciate the post, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources retired this sign and put in a replacement in 2015. The updated marker includes newer research that emerged since the original’s 1992 installation. An image of it may be seen here:

Please contact me if you have any questions. Physical markers, to borrow the cliche on political polling, are snapshots in time.

Princeton Seminar 2017: Day 3


The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “Colonial Era” teachers seminar (aka the “Princeton Seminar“) is rolling along.

This morning in the lecture hall we finished our discussion of colonial Virginia. I made the connection between mercantilism and tobacco culture and challenged the teachers to consider the social and cultural influence of tobacco on race, social structure, gender, and labor in the seventeenth century colony. We ended this lecture with an examination of Bacon’s Rebellion.

Midway through the morning session we turned to colonial New England.  We did a lot of background work today.   My lecture developed along these lines:

  • The settlers of New England were Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were Calvinist Protestant Christians
  • The settlers of New England were English Calvinist Protestant Christians

We then discussed Winthrop’s idea of a “City Upon a Hill” and how Puritan theology influenced politics and regional identity in Massachusetts Bay.  On Thursday, when we return to New England, I am hoping to say a few words about social life in the region, drawing heavily from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives.

The teachers spent the afternoon with master teacher Nate McAlister.  He continues to work with the teachers on their lesson plans and the use of primary documents.

After dinner we all headed over to the Princeton Cemetery.  I gave a very brief lecture at the graves of the early Princeton presidents–Aaron Burr Sr., Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, and John Witherspoon.  For some reason the grave of Aaron Burr Jr. got more attention than it has in years past. 🙂

We will be in Philadelphia tomorrow with George Boudreau!


Grace Wisher and the Star Spangled Banner

The good folks at the National Museum of American History have published a post telling the story of Grace Wisher, the 13-year-old African American servant who helped Mary Pickersgill design the Star Spangled Banner which flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem of the United States of America.  Here is a taste of Wisher’s story as told by Helen Yuen and Asantewa Boakyewa of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore:

The size of the Star-Spangled Banner and its six-week timeline for completion would have necessitated many people working on the flag, including Mary Pickersgill’s three nieces and Grace Wisher. The household also had an enslaved person, whose name we do not know.
The home where Pickersgill and Wisher lived is now a museum called the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. It holds a 1962 painting by famed Baltimore artist Robert McGill Mackall. The portrait features the Pickersgill household and the three men who commissioned the garrison and storm flags for Fort McHenry: Commodore Joshua Barney, General John Stricker, and Colonel George Armistead. As a tribute to Wisher, the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House drew in a ghost figure into the painting that represents the young girl. Due to our uncertainty of what she looked like, the placeholder is a traced line, but the recognition is tangible.
A major show inspired by Wisher is now on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, Maryland. The exhibition For Whom It Stands: The Flag and the American People chronicles the flag through our nation’s history and culture. Coming full circle, the museum and exhibition are on the same city block where Wisher once lived and sewed the flag. Although none of Wisher’s personal effects are on display there and may have been lost to history, her untold story is a major theme of the show.

Today’s Tea Party History Lesson

Today’s lesson comes from Marilinda Garcia, a Tea Party candidate for Congress from New Hampshire:

When she said that the United States “experiment in collectivism died before the country was founded” I thought she was going to reference the Plymouth Colony. She didn’t go there.  Instead she referenced Jamestown.  Oh boy!
A few comments:
The people of Jamestown did not starve to death because they lacked private property.  They starved to death from disease and because they did not grow food.  They were so busy trying to strike it rich in the mercantile economy by growing exotic crops like silk and dates that they did not grow anything to eat. 
Moreover, if the move toward private property (I am assuming that Garcia is making some vague reference to the Headright System here) brought economic success to the colony, such success was based on the ability of some colonists to get rich on tobacco.  And in order to get rich on tobacco, one needed a lot of servants and slaves.
So here is my revision to Garcia’s history lesson:  the “defining characteristic of America was born” in Jamestown.  All those “innate” geniuses created an American dream for themselves by “experimenting” with indentured servanthood and later slavery.  I think a famous historian once wrote a book about this called American Slavery-American Freedom.

The Obama Slave Ancestor Debate Continues

This week’s edition of the History News Network includes a special forum on the recent research by claiming that Barack Obama’s family tree on his mother’s side can be traced to a “slave” in colonial Virginia named John Punch.

Honor Sachs’s piece deals with the politics of race and genealogy and the responsibility of the historian to understand slavery, indentured servanthood, and race in the context of the 17th century world in which it was constructed.

Jeffrey Perry, who calls himself an “independent, working-class scholar,” argues that Punch was not an indentured servant because he lacked the paperwork.  When Punch ran away from his master in 1640, he fled with two actual indentured servants.  Perry also notes that neither of these escaped men (one was a “Dutchman” and one was a “Scotchman”) were “white” because the term “white” was not yet a racial category in Virginia.

Pearl Duncan questions whether John Punch was actually the “first” slave in North America.

All of this very interesting debate on DNA and slavery is getting me excited for Annette Gordon-Reed’s upcoming visit to Messiah College in November.