In 1607, the Virginia Company of London established a colony at Jamestown, for the purpose of exploiting the wealth of the Americas. The company soon set the colonists to work planting tobacco, a crop that they valued far more than the food that would sustain them. In 1623, the Crown launched an investigation of the Virginia Company. It found that Jamestown was a charnel house: Of 7,300 people shipped there, 6,040 were dead. The next year the Crown took it over. This terrible history is worth keeping in mind when considering everything that came after—including the legacy of slavery, which started with the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia in 1619. The deaths of British colonists in Jamestown obviously do not excuse the evils inflicted on Africans in bondage. But it’s a reminder that the country was conceived in many kinds of violence—against white colonists, against black slaves and their descendants, against Native Americans, against foreigners. And also in many episodes of courage.
It is beyond argument that slavery and its aftermath exercise a unique claim on the American conscience. Nonetheless, the New York Times’ ambitious “1619 Project,” charting the history of the U.S. through the prism of slavery, has elicited significant debate (see Controversy). Some of it comes from people who would prefer to see the evils of slavery as a footnote to the country’s otherwise glorious history. This kind of reductionism would return us to what generations of schoolkids were taught, with America defined largely by the Declaration of Independence and Manifest Destiny. That history was obviously incomplete. But in revising it to include the experience of all Americans, another kind of reductionism is possible: Defining this nation’s long struggle to realize its ideals by its failures, with the successes becoming the footnote. The truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere between these extremes.