1619–A Portentous Year. A Book Review and Summary

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Horn, James. 1619:  Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy.  New York: Basic Books, 2018.

Notwithstanding the title, this book is not part of the controversial 1619 Project.  The author is currently the most prominent and knowledgeable scholar of early colonial Virginia.  He is the president and chief officer of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, which is responsible for the management of Historic Jamestowne, the original site of the first permanent English colony in America.  As a reviewer in The Wall Street Journal put it, “If anyone today knows colonial Virginia, it is James Horn.”

Relying heavily on primary sources, Horn provides a brief summary of the early years of the colony of Virginia, culminating in  1619, when the “Great Reforms” were instituted.  Although coincidental, Horn declares the meeting of the first representative government and the arrival of the first African slaves in 1619 was “portentous.”  His thesis is that  “1619 marks the inception of the most important political development in American history, the rise of democracy and the emergence of what would in time become one of the nation’s greatest challenges:  the corrosive legacy of racial stereotypes that continues to affect our society today.”

As Horn describes it, the early history of the Virginia colony can be divided into four phases:  1606-1609, the early unruly years; 1609-1619, the military rule years; 1619-1622, the Great Reform; after 1622 and the dissolution of the Virginia Company.

As the author says at the beginning of Chapter 1, “Jamestown was unabashedly a commercial venture.”  It was a project of private investors, consisting of prominent merchants and wealthy landowners in England, who formed the Virginia Company (“the Company”), which obtained a charter from the King of England to establish colonies that would promote overseas expansion and commerce.  The investors expected a return on their money.

The first attempt at establishing a profitable venture did not go well.  Within a few months after landing in Virginia, the colonists arrested Capt. John Smith (yes, that John Smith), accusing him of trying to make himself “king”, threw him into the brig, and shipped him back to England.  Several months after that, three members of the governing council overthrew Capt. Edwin Wingfield, the first president of the colony, on the grounds that he “was unworthy to serve and an atheist.”  In turn, Wingfield accused his plotters of wanting to forsake the king and establish a “Parliament”.  He charged the new council president with imposing a government of arbitrary rule.  He cited a case in which a deposed member of the council had been charged with treason, convicted on the basis of little evidence, and summarily shot.

At this point, the Virginia Company became convinced that the colony had, as Horn describes it, “degenerated into a half-starved mutinous rabble and the enterprise was in grave danger of foundering.”  (This is hardly the story students in Virginia schools hear.)  To remedy the situation, the Company asked the King to amend its charter to provide it with more authority over the colony.  The new charter, granted in 1609, authorized the Company to establish “all manner of laws, directions, instructions, forms and ceremonies of government and magistracy” necessary for the colony.  To implement this authority, the Company created a new position, “an absolute Governor”.

To avoid arbitrary rule, the colony’s first legal code, Laws Divine, Moral, and Martial, was established.  Rule may not have been arbitrary, but it could be harsh.  For example, the punishment for anyone who did not attend church twice a day, persistently blasphemed God’s name, or called into question the reputation of a minister could be whipping, having one’s tongue bored through with a long, blunt needle (bodkin), or death.  Slandering the Company or its leaders, killing livestock, or fornication likewise carried harsh penalties, including whipping, branding, loss of ears, or galley (ships with oars) service.

It was during this period that the Company and the colony’s governors instituted changes that had a profound effect on the colony’s, and the nation’s, development.  By the terms of this charter, the Company controlled all the land within its boundaries.  At the beginning of the colony, the Company supported the settlers and required that the products of their labors be used to benefit the colony as a whole and contribute to the expected profits of the Company.  For several years, Governor Sir Thomas Dale adopted tough measures to compel colonists to work harder to supply the common store.  It didn’t work.  Horn reports that “most of them avoided work at all costs, actively hoping to bring about the collapse of the colony and their return home.”

Dale finally responded by allotting parcels of three to twelve acres of cleared land to men who had completed seven years’ service to the Company.  They were allowed to work for themselves eleven months of the year; in the twelfth month they were obliged to work for the Company for the common good.  In addition, they were allowed to grow tobacco (cash crop) so long as they devoted two or three acres to corn.  As a result, the colony soon became self-sufficient.  One contemporary observer reported that three men were producing as much as thirty had previously.

Nevertheless, the influx of new settlers had dried up.  To attract more investment and settlers, the Company began to distribute land, including land that had been settled by the native tribes.  Anybody who had been in the colony for at least seven years, together with investors who had bought shares, would get 50 acres.  Furthermore, investors would get 50 acres with each share, with the promise of more to come.  The Company also began a series of large-scale land grants to individuals or private associations as a way to bolster the Company’s finances.  Terms were generous.  Syndicates, which often included many of the Company’s officers and colony officials obtained grants of thousands of acres, with some ranging up to 100,000 acres.  Some former officials, such as former deputy governor George Yeardley, received gifts of land “in recognition of services to the colony”.  Yeardley received a grant of 2,400 acres along the James River.  In turn, the recipients of these grants were expected, and needed, to recruit workers to go to the colonies to make the grants profitable.

As would be expected, there was corruption.  Leaders of the colony’s government were prominent grant recipients.  Also, favorites of the leaders of the colony and the Company received large grants on highly preferential terms.

Despite such problems, Horn concludes, “The Company’s willingness to allow individuals or groups of investors to own private property in the colony was a decisive turning point at the end of Jamestown’s first decade.”  Just as important, “Without firm guarantees that their property rights and investments would be protected against arbitrary seizure or embezzlement, settlers, especially those of means, would not be tempted to move to the colony; the risk to themselves and their property would be too great.”  That is where government and the rule of law came in.

Generally, the Company gave assurances that the rule of law would be applied “as closely as possible to English traditions and precedent.”  But, in truth, England was governed by many different varieties of law and the Company had the authority in its charter to adopt those forms that were “fit and necessary”.  Horn concludes, “Authoritarian councils and martial law emerged as the dominant forms of government in Virginia down to 1619.”

These events served as a backdrop to the institution of the “Great Reforms”.   The man behind the changes was Sir Edwin Sandys, who had, in effect, taken charge of the Company in 1618.  Horn argues that Sandys had a grant vision that went beyond the original commercials focus of the Company—“the reformation of English society in the New World.”

Sandys and his supporters were heavily influenced by the concept of commonwealth that was one of the major political theories of the time.  The basis of the idea of commonwealth was the “critical relationship between the healthy body politic on the one hand and the people’s welfare on the other.”  A commonwealth invoked the search for the “ideal balance between private enterprise and the common good.”  Sandys hoped to establish in the New World a “perfected” English society, “a commonwealth that would benefit all.”  Horn summarizes Sandys’s goal to be:

…a society that promoted an abiding commitment to Anglican ritual and God’s word, just laws, equitable government and an economy based on a wide variety of crops and industries, trade, and public works that would benefit the Company and the multitudes of settlers who would shortly flock to the colony.

For Sandys, the concept of a commonwealth included having people involved in their own public affairs.  Therefore, one of the innovations instituted by the Company was the establishment of “a general council” to convene annually or more often, if needed.

The foundations for self-governing had already been laid.  Soon after the new governor arrived in 1618, he organized the settlements, dispersed from Tidewater to the falls of the James River, into four boroughs.  These would be largely self-governing and implement instructions from the Company and officials of the colony.  Another foundation were the large plantations established as the result from the land grants.  These had become largely self-governing, but the new governor quickly made it plain that they would come under the civic authority of Jamestown.

In June 1619, Governor Yeardley instructed each of the boroughs, private plantations, and the hundreds (another form of local jurisdiction) to send two men to join the Governor and his council in a single body at Jamestown.  The representatives were to be chosen by male freeholders and tenants by a “plurality of voices”.

They convened in Jamestown on July 30, 1619.  Yeardley called an abrupt halt to the meeting after six days, citing the oppressive heat (one representative, or burgess, had already died during the meeting).  Despite the relatively short session, the members accomplished a lot.  Among those accomplishments was a set of petitions and laws that would be submitted to the Company for review and would be enforced while that review was underway.  The recommended laws covered all aspects of the colony’s affairs.  There were provisions setting the price of tobacco, restricting the trading privileges of particular plantations, and regulating trading voyages in the Chesapeake Bay, for example.  Other laws required the enforcement of contracts, while some prohibited idleness, gaming, drunkenness, and “excess in apparel.”  With these and other actions, the first General Assembly made it clear that the rule of law, applicable to all, would be the way going forward.  Horn terms this beginning of self-government to be “one of the most important political events to take place in British America before the Revolution.”

Sandys’s attempt to establish a perfected English commonwealth in the New World did not last long.  He was thwarted by events in American and by political intrigue in England.

One of the basic assumptions of Sandys and his supporters was that the native tribes in Virginia would be assimilated into the commonwealth.  The Indians had other ideas about that.  The uprising in 1622, resulting in the killing of hundreds of settlers, abruptly ended that part of the vision.

Sandys had plenty of enemies in England.  Some were powerful voices in the Company who were resentful of his takeover and wished to return the Company’s focus back on making money for the investors, rather than on constructing a new type of society.  Sandys himself had long been involved in Parliamentary confrontations with the King and, thus, had enemies in the palace court.

The disaster of the Indian massacre in 1622 was followed by a winter of starvation and illness.  The result was that “1622-23 was the worst year the English endured in Virginia and at least a thousand settlers perished.” These events encouraged more scrutiny in London over the situation in Virginia and strengthened Sandys’ opponents.  In 1624, King James I revoked the Company’s charter.  His successor, Charles I, the next year declared Virginia to be a royal colony, under the direct jurisdiction and protection of the King.

In addition to the failure of Indians to assimilate into a commonwealth, two other aspects of Sandys’s vision failed to materialize.  One long time goal of the Company had been the diversification of crops and industries.  Despite the efforts of the Company to encourage such diversity, Virginians increasingly turned to tobacco as a source of wealth.  The volume of tobacco exports to England increased quickly in a spectacular fashion.  In 1616, only 1,250 pounds were exported.  That amount increased to 9,000 pounds the next year and 25,000 pounds in 1618.  A positive aspect of the growth in tobacco cultivation was that a single farmer with only a few acres could produce enough to provide for his family without having to depend on other crops.  Of course, large planters with many workers (free and slave) could get even richer.

Another basic component of a commonwealth was the welfare of all sectors of the population.  However, by the early 1620s, there was a growing inequality of wealth in the colony.  The owners of the plantations and other large tracts of land had to bring in large numbers of tenant farmers, indentured workers, and slaves to work their lands.  The gap between the rich and the poor grew.  A 1625 census revealed that 70 percent of the adult population was made up of servants and enslaved Africans.

After the revocation of the Virginia Company’s charter, the colony developed along lines much different from those envisioned by Sandys.  Horn provides some examples of how, after the failure of the Sandys’s commonwealth and the end of Company rule, wealthy planters were able to seize upon plenty of opportunities to expand their influence and power.  “No effective remedy to check their influence could be mounted in the colony or from England.”  Alone among the innovations of the period from 1619-1622 to survive was the General Assembly.  The idea of a society using representation to self-govern itself had gotten a toehold in 1619 and would continue to grow and expand its parliamentary privileges.  Ironically, it was this institution, which the Company had established to promote broad-based involvement in government, that became the “principal means by which wealthy planter-merchants consolidated their power.”

Horn devotes a chapter to the other portentous event of 1619: the arrival of “20 and odd Negroes” on an English privateer.  The African slaves had been the booty from a conquest of a Portuguese slave ship.  The Governor of the colony and the Company’s cape merchant bought the slaves for “victuals at the best and easiest rates they could.”  This was a routine report and did not imply that it was anything out of the ordinary.  As Horn explains, “Slavery, African and Indian, together with a broad spectrum of white non-freedom—apprenticeships, convict labor, and serfdom—were simply taken for granted in the emerging Atlantic world of the time and elicited little comment.”

Most of Horn’s discussion of the introduction of slavery to continental English America centers around the details surrounding the first groups brought here.  He does not propose any over-arching theory that racism dominated the development of American society.  He does assert that “racial prejudice developed simultaneously with slavery” and points out that early laws regulating the behavior of whites and Blacks were “overtly discriminatory.”  As a result, over the next several decades, “examples of institutional racial discrimination became increasingly common.”  He provides several examples, including a 1662 law providing that the status of African or African American children should follow the condition of their mother.  In other words, if an Englishman fathered a child with a Black slave, the child’s status would be that of slave.

Horn also gives much attention to the other non-white population in Virginia—the native tribes.  Probably every Virginian who was educated in Virginia elementary and secondary schools knows the story of Pocahontas–her friendship with John Smith and her marriage to John Rolfe.  They also have probably heard of the Massacre of 1622.   But that is likely the extent of their knowledge.

It is pretty well accepted now that the story of Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith was embellished a great deal by Smith later when he wrote of his brief time in Virginia.  Probably unmentioned in the history books is the abduction of Pocahontas by the settlers and her being held hostage for almost a year as a bargaining chip in the colonists’ negotiations with her father, the great chief Wahunsonacock (often referred to as Powhatan) to bring hostilities to an end.

The Massacre of 1622 is well-known.  What is not as well known are the events that Horn describes as leading up to those attacks and the English response to them.  In 1609, there had been a severe drought and food was scarce in Jamestown.  The settlers tried to trade for food with nearby Indians, but they were short, also, and refused.  The settlers then tried to take the Indians’ supplies by force.  In response, the Indians “rose up against the English,” killing many of them.

The colonists spent most of the winter of 1609-1610 under siege in their fort, with most starving to death.  When relief ships sailed up the James River in the spring of 1610, only 60 settlers, out of about 300, had survived.  During that summer, the English retaliated, killing Indians of all ages and both sexes, destroying their houses, and cutting down and carrying away their corn and plantings.

Hostilities continued until about 1613, when an uneasy truce set in.  Over the next decade, the English began settling more and more land that had previously been occupied by the native tribes.  Then, in 1622, led by their war chief, Opechancanough, the Indians, in a coordinated attack, struck settlements all along the James River valley and as far south as Elizabeth City.  They killed approximately 350 English men, women, and children; destroyed crops, livestock, and houses; and burned churches to the ground.  The aim was to compel the English to abandon the colony and Virginia altogether.  (Note: Horn’s latest book is a biography of Opechancanough.)

One of the primary hopes and motivations of colonization had been that of “civilizing the Indians, eradicating savagery, and redeeming them from idolatry.”  With the 1622 attacks, that hope was destroyed.  Rather than continuing to hope to assimilate the Indians in a commonwealth, the Company ordered the colony’s governor to launch a “perpetual” war against them.  As Horn summarizes the orders given, “The English were given license to kill Indian men and women or to starve them into submission.”

The author has a plain, easy-to-read, writing style.  In addition to exploring the historical significance of the events of 1619, he is telling a story and giving the characters in the story a human dimension.  His use of primary sources is wide-ranging and impressive.  At times he may get into too much detail for some readers, but that detail is often what gives the narrative its human dimensions.

One of the important features of the book is its relatively brief discussion of political events, leaders, and movements in England, and, to some extent, Europe during this period.  These descriptions make it clear that what was going on in Virginia was not occurring in a vacuum.  Events in other parts of the world were affecting Virginia and, in turn, events in Virginia affected leaders and decisions in England and elsewhere.

In summary Horn tells us, “Across four hundred years, the contrasting legacies of 1619 are still with us.”  On the negative side, “The extreme inequality, impoverishment and de facto segregation that divide American communities are among the most intractable social problems that face American society.”  But, on the other side of that legacy, “1619 also embodies a legacy of quite different meaning: the inception of the most important political development in American history, the rise of democracy.”  He concludes, “Sandys’s dream of creating a commonwealth in the interests of the settlers and Indians proved short-lived.  But the twin pillars of democracy—the rule of law and representative government—survived and flourished.  It was his greatest legacy.”

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6 responses to “1619–A Portentous Year. A Book Review and Summary”

  1. YellowstoneBound1948 Avatar

    Outstanding book review! Sandys is one of the great unsung heroes of the early Jamestowne years. I am glad to see him getting some recognition. And Thomas West (Lord Delaware) was evidently a great leader. Who else could have made the colonists turn back after the Starving Time? Can you imagine? The colonists were sailing down the James, and he was sailing up. And he got them to turn back. I was watching a documentary on the Little Big Horn last night, and the narrator intoned that Sitting Bull’s great victory was really the beginning of the end for America’s Native Americans. I think you could make the case that the 1622 uprising was the beginning of the end.

  2. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive


    And, as I oft say, “Virginia – 400 years of tradition unhampered by progress.”

    1. oromae Avatar

      That’s a ludicrous statement. You make them a habit.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive


  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Fascinating and informative book review that gets to the essence of commerce and governance and the interplay and tension between “rule” and ‘libertarianism’.

    Thank You – once more – and again – for sharing an intelligent perspective free of the ignorant culture war idiocy and mythological “history’ that now substitutes for knowledge of actual history.

    In some respects , one might compare the story of Dust Mites with the actual history of Jamestown.

  4. Ronnie Chappell Avatar
    Ronnie Chappell

    Nicely done. I look forward to finding and reading this book.

    For those of you who haven’t visited Jamestown in a while, I highly recommend the archaeology tour offered twice daily at Historic Jamestown. It has become our go-to activity for out-of-town guests who are visiting for a short time. The tour is 90 minutes, or more depending on the guide. The talk describes how scientists and historians are matching artefacts unearthed at the site to written record. An incredible picture of “The Starving Time” emerges. Colonization was hard on all involved — the settlers, the Indians and later the slaves and indentured servants who occupied the land. Since the mid-90’s more than 2 million artifacts have been unearthed, including evidence of survival cannibalism.

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