We learned haunting and currently relevant facts about our nation’s history while spending an early fall week in Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. For those who founded this nation, opportunity trumped concern for personal safety. It staggers the imagination to think of people leaving the security of their familiar, comfortable homeland to build a new life for themselves in a strange and primitive land about which they knew almost nothing. Just how harsh and forbidding the challenges of this endeavor would turn out to be is measured by the fact that by 1610, three years after the Jamestown settlement’s founding, only 60 out of 500 of them survived. Such was the stuff our pioneer ancestors were made of, and such, as we know, drives the underprivileged from around the world today to reach far beyond their circumstances to realize their dream of a better life here in America.
We made day trips to both Jamestown and Yorktown, where the history was much older than in Williamsburg.
We were fortunate in that the Park Service ranger conducting our tour of Jamestown was knowledgeable, passionate, and enthusiastic about the many details of the life and trials of the first settlers. I was particularly struck by the fact that, even in the face of all the problems, the Virginia Company succeeded in recruiting 90 women to make the voyage to the new land to join the surviving men and boys who had been in the first wave of settlers. One of the rangers we heard discussing this in some detail was adamant in refuting the proffered explanation that these women had come to Virginia because they were too ugly to find a husband in England. He offered as evidence that this was not the case the fact was that these intrepid ladies were all married within one year, despite the fact that the lucky men who succeeded in winning their hands (in the four- or five-to-one competition) still had to obtain permission to marry them from the Virginia Company (the prospective wife’s employer) and had to be prosperous enough to reimburse the company for the cost of their passage. The ranger’s explanation for why these women braved the wilds of the New World was simple: coming from a working class background, they had little to no hope of marrying a man with land in England, while there was great opportunity to do just that in the colony, thereby improving her prospects and those of her children and grandchildren as well.
Our trip to Yorktown took us back some 150 years to the era of the American Revolution. The fall weather was perfect and we ate lunch by the water’s edge at exactly the time of year that Washington, with the help of the French, had Cornwallis and the British army he commanded under siege in the very town where we sat. This made it all the more interesting to imagine all the deadly action that was unfolding on that precise location exactly 228 years ago.
We know that the colonists were deeply divided between those who vowed to have “liberty or death” and the loyalists who did everything within their power — despite his tyranny — to keep the colonies under the security provided by the rule of King George, who controlled the awesome British army and navy.
Then, as now, those two competing interests — liberty and security — were locked in a furious contest whose outcome was far from certain at the time, and today that contest continues. On one side stand those hardy, intrepid souls who prize what they see as their God-given liberty and the freedom by His grace to take on the challenges of life for themselves; on the other are those who yearn for big government to stand between them and the vicissitudes of life.
Believing that they were being aided by Divine Providence, Washington and his men persisted under the most cruel and daunting of conditions. And they prevailed. They “brought forth … a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And not equal in that all have the same amount of things, but equal in their right as God’s creations to make their own choices and seek their own opportunities. The America for which those patriots bled and died has been a magnet, a beacon of hope ever since for all those around the world who yearn for liberty more than security.
Still just as the loyalists of the colonial period were content to live in subjugation to King George and the security — such as it was — that this entailed, so today, there are far too many in America who would tip the scales towards ever larger government, despite its curtailment of freedom, in hopes having the state make their future less harsh, problem-laden, and froth with uncertainty.
Sadly, they have not reckoned with the realities that led Jefferson to declare to James Madison (1787 – ME 6:391): “I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.” [emphasis mine] Perhaps it is because they have not studied the clear lessons of history that “government big enough to supply everything you need, is big enough to take everything you have.”
Perhaps they cannot be bothered to care.
But some of us care deeply. We desire — no, like those early patriots, we insist on — a land where our children and grandchildren can enjoy the intoxicating taste of freedom.