Looking Out for Number One: The Cultural Limits on Public Policy in Early Virginia
JAMESTOWN TODAY POSSESSES a desolate, unsettling quality. The ghosts of ancient failure and human suffering still haunt this place. A church tower is the only seventeenth-century structure that remains standing. A row of moldering brick foundations scattered along the river front is all that is left of the settlers' homes. Walking among these ruins, one senses that Jamestown was seldom a happy community. A colorful reconstruction of an early fort and paintings depicting the colonists at work fail to mask the horrors that confronted the first Jamestown adventurers. It was here that English migrants filled with dreams of riches in the New World died by the hundreds, perhaps by the thousands. Epidemic, mutiny, starvation, war, even cannibalism, these are terms that describe life in this early outpost.
Within this same area of Tidewater Virginia, a visitor can still see the splendid mansions of the eighteenth-century gentry. The juxtaposition of these great plantations with the desolation of Jamestown is striking. The gentry's homes give the impression of order, stability, and success. Everything is under control. Wandering about the grounds of William Byrd's Westover on a bright spring day, for example, one feels Byrd's self-confidence. There is no hint here of the grim struggle for survival that permeates the atmosphere at Jamestown. In fact, it is difficult to conceive how the society that created such impressive structures could possibly have had its origins in that earlier community. What influence could the Virginia of Captain John Smith and Sir Thomas Dale have had upon the world of William Byrd II, Robert "King" Carter, and William Fitzhugh?