JAMESTOWN, Va. (WAVY) — Lawmakers, Gov. Ralph Northam and other special guests gathered Tuesday morning at a reconstructed church at the site where the New World’s first representative assembly met four centuries ago.
Northam said the ideals of freedom and representative government spread from Jamestown in 1619. But he also noted the first assembly was significant for those not included: women, enslaved Africans and Native Americans.
Northam called that the paradox of Virginia, America and its representative democracy.
President Donald Trump was scheduled to speak later at a second ceremony. His participation prompted a pledge by some top Democrats and the Legislative Black Caucus to boycott the events.
Read Northam’s full remarks below.
Good morning. It is a pleasure to be here today, and I thank you Senator Norment for your kind introduction.Gov. Ralph Northam
I served in the state Senate along with Senator Norment, and also presided over that body as Lieutenant Governor. That gave me a deep appreciation for the history of the Senate, as part of our General Assembly.
I appreciate Senator Norment’s service and leadership in the Senate. I feel privileged to be here with him today commemorating such important events in our state’s and our country’s history.
Thanks to all of you for being here today.
We are gathered here this morning at the spot where, 400 years ago, representative democracy began on this continent.
We look back across these 400 years at the colony of Jamestown, and from our perspective in 2019, it’s hard to imagine what life was like in that colony.
And it’s hard to imagine, now when the ideas of America and democracy are so rooted in our minds, that Jamestown was an experiment that nearly failed.
It was not founded to give birth to a new way of governing, or to be an incubator for our lofty ideals of freedom.
It was founded to make money for investors and establish a foothold on a new continent.
And it was plagued, early on, from a high death rate and a martial-law style of governance that didn’t actually make Virginia a very attractive place to come. Potential colonists were not eager to go to Virginia.
To save the colony, the men running the Virginia Company started to make changes, to make the place more attractive. With ideas planted by Sir Edwin Sands, they started talking about a different system of government. They directed the creation of a General Assembly.
On this very day, July 30, in 1619, 22 burgesses met here in this place – this church stands on the foundations of the one in which they met. Like today, it was hot. It was humid.
For six days, they sweated out the details of what would become our first representative government. They built a framework to settle disputes, pass laws, and manage the colony through discussion and legislation.
And over the years and the centuries, as the Jamestown colony and the Plymouth colony became 13 colonies, then states, then those states became united as America, the ideals of freedom and representative government have flourished here. They spread out from this very ground here at Jamestown.
But that’s not the only thing that spread from this place. While we mark this history, we must also remember that it is more complex. The story of Virginia is rooted in the simultaneous pursuit of both liberty and enslavement.
Because just a few weeks after that first General Assembly in 1619, a ship arrived, carrying stolen African people, taken from Angola. Here, they were sold, and sold again—the first enslaved Africans, people who were not granted the same freedoms that would be given to white, landowning colonists.
And here, those enslaved Africans joined the thousands of Virginia’s first people, the members of the Virginia Indian tribes, who would also wait centuries to have the same freedoms.
So today, as we hold these commemorations of the first representative assembly in the free world, we have to remember who it included, and who it did not.
That’s the paradox of Virginia, of America, and of our representative democracy.
A full accounting demands that we confront and discuss those aspects of our history. And it demands that we look not just to a point in time 400 years in the past, but at how our Commonwealth and our country evolved over the course of those four centuries.
In many ways, Virginia today represents the best of what it means to be American. We know our diversity is our strength, and we welcome immigrants, refugees, and all who, like those who stood on this spot 400 years ago, come to Virginia in search of a better life.
Our doors are open and our lights are on. No matter who you are, no matter who you love, and no matter where you came from, you are welcome in Virginia.
There is nothing—nothing—more American than that.
But even as we stand here today proud of the progress we’ve made, let’s not forget we have a long way to go. There are a number of inequities that continue to exist in Virginia and beyond—inequities in access to a world-class education, inequities in access to healthcare, inequities in access to business opportunities, to the justice system and to the voting booth.
A true commemoration of the founding of our democracy requires us to examine how we have lived up to our ideals, or failed to do so. And it requires we do this work not just today but every day, and not just with big speeches or commemorative events, but with action.
I want to thank the many people and organizations that have worked to create this event today: Preservation Virginia, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Fort Monroe Authority, the National Park Service.
And I want to thank all of those people who work to preserve these sites here at Jamestown and Point Comfort, now Fort Monroe.
The archaeologists and historians who work to understand what happened here, from the food people ate to the laws they passed.
I have always believed that if you don’t know where you come from, you can’t know where you’re going. To understand America as it is today, and as it will be tomorrow, we have to understand America as it was yesterday. This site is an important part of that understanding.
I’m grateful we can come together to talk about all of those aspects of our history, and the importance of this place and those events 400 years ago. They made us what we are today, and they continue to guide us as we work towards a better, fairer, and more inclusive tomorrow.