It was my great pleasure to be invited to the Virginia General Assembly’s 400th Commemorative Session.
The Assembly is the Western Hemisphere’s first and oldest representative government. The impact that that first meeting had on Virginia, America, and the rest of the world is immense. To mark the occasion 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution put together a week long program in which Historic Jamestown, Jamestown Settlement, and the College of William and Mary took part.
Historians, businessmen, and world-leaders were invited to participate in the American Evolution Forum on the Future of Representative Democracy, which has produced fascinating discussions covering the wide variety of issues that have affected and still affect representative government today.
Some of the key speakers featured in the Forum were –
- Kathy Spangler, Executive Director, 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution
- Virginia Representative Kirk Cox, Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates
- Virginia State Senator Tommy Norment
- U.S. Senator Mark Warner
- U.S. Senator Tim Kaine
- U.S. Representative Elaine Goodman Luria (VA-2), U.S. Navy veteran
- U.S. Representative Bobby Scott (VA-3)
- U.S. Representative Rob Wittman (VA-1)
- Katherine Anandi Rowe, President, William & Mary (first female president)
- Carly Fiorina, American businesswoman and political figure
- Robert Gates, former U.S. Secretary of Defense from 2006-2001, scholar, and intelligence analyst
- David Rubenstein, Financier and philanthropist, co-founder of The Carlyle Group
- Annette Gordon-Reed, American historian and law professor
- Eric Cantor, Politician, lawyer, banker
- Jeffrey Rosen, American academic and commentator on legal affairs
- Andrea Mitchell, television journalist and commentator
- Andrew Card Jr., former White House Chief of Staff from 2001-2006
- Karl Rove, Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff during the George W. Bush administration
- Melody Barnes, lawyer and political advisor; former chief counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and of Center for American Progress
- Robin Christian Howard Niblett CMG, British specialist in international relations
- Larry Joseph Sabato is an American political scientist and political analyst, and Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia
- Marc Short, Chief of Staff to Vice President Mike Pence
- Sir David Natzler KCB, former Clerk of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom
I attended only the 400th Commemorative Assembly activities, which held 3 sessions.
The First Meeting took place at Historic Jamestown’s Memorial Church
Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO of Preservation Virginia, welcomed those attending the historic meeting and was followed by Virginia Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment.
The highlight from this meeting has to have been remarks delivered by Sir David Natzler KCB, retiring Clerk of the British House of Commons of the United Kingdom. His words linked Virginia’s representative government to other historical assemblies as far back as Athens as well as his native United Kingdom.
“These events were important not only in Virginia, not only in America, but throughout the world. The idea took root that people wanted to be governed by laws of their own making.”
Sir Natzler concluded by congratulating British Parliament’s oldest child, the Virginia General Assembly on her 400th Anniversary.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam followed Sir Natzler’s comments and spoke of the historic context and importance of Virginia’s General Assembly. He also mentioned who was not part of that First Assembly, women and newly arriving Africans. (The Jamestown Brides did not arrive until later 1620-1621 and the “20 and Odd” did not arrive until August, 1619. But followers of this podcast understand that there were a few women and Africans in Virginia pre-1619).
Following Governor Northam’s comments the first meeting adjourned. Lineage societies then placed wreaths outside of the Memorial Church’s tower before those on the Island moved to Jamestown Settlement.
The Second Meeting took place at Jamestown Settlement’s re-created church
A processional led the Assembly into Jamestown Settlement’s church located within the re-created James Fort.
Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Kirkland Cox welcomed guests, and was followed by Assistant Fort Supervisor of the Jamestown Settlement Brian Beckley, who played Governor George Yeardley, the man who opened that fateful Assembly 400 years ago.
Mark Greenough, Tour Guide Supervisor and Historian at the Virginia State Capitol, succeeded Mr. Beckley by delivering an interpretation while dressed to play Speaker John Pory.
Speaker Cox followed Mr. Greenough’s period interpretation before introducing the esteemed Presidential Historian Jon Meacham. Mr. Meacham’s speech highlighted some of Virginia’s historic contributions. One such highlight, the First Thanksgiving, brought loud applause. (In fact, Graham Woodlief sat in the row just ahead of me. He was gratified by the attention, as he mentioned to me afterward).
Meacham’s sentiments included memorable statements such as, “Jamestown is a mirror of who we were and who we are.”
Further, “Dreamers and doers came here and they built, and we stand in the light of their achievement.”
Finally, “In our finest hours, America has been about life, it’s been about liberty, it’s been about the pursuit of happiness not just for some, but for all. And in that history, history rooted here in this place, lies our hope.”
Mr. Meacham said many other things that delved into today’s current political landscape, but in my personal estimation, July 30, 2019 was about the beginning of a momentous, history changing event that though perhaps did not include everyone, would build upon this original foundation to include everyone. That being the case, I purposely chose what I deemed the most important and pertinent remarks from what was a well-crafted and articulate speech.
If one would like to find Mr. Meacham’s full remarks, please visit this article by The Hill’s Judy Kutz, which also highlights some of the same comments already mentioned.
Speaker Cox brought the Assembly back to order, presided over the Mace’s presentation, conducted a roll call, and then called for a recess as the Assembly proceeded to the next venue,a tent set up for the day’s main Assembly meeting.
The Final Meeting took place at Jamestown Settlement’s Mall Area
The Assembly processional marched from the re-created church to the Settlement’s Mall Area, where organizers erected a tent for the day’s final meeting.
Speaker Cox brought the Assembly back to order before offering his own remarks and welcoming distinguished guests.
Illinois State Senator and President of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Toi Hutchinson followed Speaker Cox. Senator Hutchinson reflected on overcome challenges; challenges that could derail representative government if Americans are not on guard –
“I’m proud because despite the many challenges and setbacks this country has faced, America is still a place where our right to self-governance is not taken for granted, where we can challenge our government and debate our principles, and the institutions which provide for that right are held dear.”
“The institution of the legislature needs to be protected. For it is as strong and as fragile as democracy itself.” Said Senator Hutchinson before a crowd that stood in praise.
President Trump then arrived to deliver the keynote address.
President Trump Addresses Virginia’s General Assembly
In a historic twist on an already historic day, President Trump addressed the General Assembly. The President’s speech marked the first time that a sitting President of the United States addressed the Virginia General Assembly.
President Trump greeted those in attendance before highlighting Jamestown’s pre-1619 history. I’ll offer just a few remarks here, but if you want to see or read the entire keynote address, please, go here. Otherwise, here are a few key statements from the President’s speech.
Regarding Jamestown’s Early Years
“As we can see today on this great anniversary, it would not be the last time that God looked out for Virginia. Together, the settlers forged what would become the timeless traits of the American character. They worked hard, they had courage and 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. At a prior settlement at Roanoke, there had been no survivors, none at all. But where others had typically perished, the Virginians were determined to succeed. They endured by the sweat of their labor, the aid of the Powhatan Indians, and the leadership of Captain John Smith.”
“As the years passed, ships bearing supplies and settlers from England also brought a culture and a way of life that would define the New World. It all began here. In time, dozens of brave strong women made the journey and join the colony and, in 1618, the Great Charter and other reforms established a system based on English common law. For the first time, Virginia allowed private land ownership. It created a basic judicial system. Finally, it gave the colonists essay in their own future, the right to elect representatives by popular vote.”
Regarding the Arrival of the First Africans
“As we mark the first representative legislature at Jamestown, our nation also reflects upon an anniversary from that same summer four centuries ago. In August 1619, the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies arrived in Virginia. It was the beginning of a barbaric trade in human lives. Today, and honor, we remember every sacred soul who suffered the horrors of slavery and the anguish of bondage. More than 150 years later, at America’s founding, our Declaration of Independence recognized the immortal truth that all men are created equal.”
“In the face of grave oppression and grave injustice, African-Americans have built, strengthened, inspired, uplifted, protected, defended, and sustained our nation from its very earliest days.”
Regarding the First Assembly’s Impact
“In the decades that followed that first legislative assembly, the Democratic tradition established here late deep roots all across Virginia. It spread up and down the Atlantic coast. One fact was quickly established for all time, in America, we are not ruled from afar, Americans govern ourselves. And so help us, God, we always will.”
“Self-government in Virginia did not just give us estate we love, in a very true sense, it gave us the country we love, the United States of America.”
“From the first legislative assembly down to today America has been the story of citizens who take ownership of their future and their control of their destiny. That is what self-rule is all about. Every day Americans coming together to take action, to build, to create, to seize opportunities. To pursue the common good and to never stop striving for greatness.”
“But among all of our America’s towering achievements none exceeds the triumph that we are here to celebrate today. Our nation’s priceless culture of freedom, independence, equality, justice and self-determination under God.”
“That culture is the source of who we are it is our prized inheritance it is our proudest legacy. It is among the greatest human accomplishments in the history of the world what you have done is the greatest accomplishment in the history of the world. And I congratulate you. It started right here.”
President Trump’s arrival sparked a little controversy. There were those who did not welcome his attendance, and they expressed as much.
The great thing, as part of Virginia’s 1619 foundational legacy, is that such opposition is tolerated. Before that time, even in Virginia, such opposition would at least earn prison, torture, and usually death. 1619’s Assembly laid the framework from which liberty has evolved. Perhaps the demonstration was misplaced during such a historic occasion, but that still does not take away from the fact that one has the freedom to conscientiously object.
Individual liberty continues to grow today as it faces new challenges. The inheritors of such a legacy must continue to champion that individual liberty on a local, personal level. That is the sentiment upon which Virginia and later the United States was built. That sentiment began 400 years ago on a hot, often disease plagued island, and we still celebrate that event today.
ADDITIONAL 1619 LINKS:
- 1619 – Representative Government Is Formed
- 1619 – Women and Angolans Arrive
- Special Episode – The First Thanksgiving
- The Dr. James Horn Interview
- Virginia’s Outstanding Women – Interview with Dr. Sandra Gioia Treadway
- The House of Burgesses – Interview with Nancy Egloff
- Graham Woodlief Interview – the 400th Anniversary of the First Thanksgiving
- Tenacity, Virginia’s Remarkable 17th Century Women – Interview with Nancy Egloff
- Interview with Fort Monroe’s Terry Brown
- Falling Creek Ironworks’ 400th Anniversary – Interview with Archaeologist Lyle Browning
- American Evolution, Commemoration 2019
- Historic Jamestowne
- Jamestown Settlement
- Berkeley Plantation
- First Thanksgiving Festival
- Hampton, VA 2019 Commemorative Commission
- Project 1619
- 1619-2019 Commemoration at Fort Monroe
- Virginia General Assembly
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted. The Featured Image is of the Virginia House of Delegates Sergent at Arms John L. Pearson, Jr. carrying the Mace into the Tent.