You’d think one thing Virginia would be able to do right would be a celebration of Jamestown.
In case you’ve missed the news: General Assembly Democrats say they will boycott next Tuesday’s ceremony marking the 400th anniversary of the first elected legislature in the hemisphere if President Trump attends.
This is in response to Trump singling out four Democratic congresswomen — all non-white — and saying they should “go back” to the countries they came from. Inconvenient fact for Trump: This is the country where three of them came from. The fourth is a naturalized American citizen. The point of contention: In America, we don’t tell people to “go back” where they came from. That’s the whole thing about being American: Our ancestry should not matter. In telling these members of Congress to “go back,” Trump has tried to obliterate one of our founding principles.
In any case, there are other inconvenient facts for Democrats: The invitation to Trump was issued last year by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican leaders of the General Assembly House Speaker Kirk Cox and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment. As a result, the General Assembly Democrats are threatening to boycott an invite from their own party’s governor.
Another inconvenient fact: The invitations were issued on behalf of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Three Democratic legislators serve on the foundation’s board of trustees — Del. Ken Plum of Fairfax, Del. Delores McQuinn of Richmond and state Sen. Janet Howell of Fairfax, the latter of whom serves as the board’s vice chairman. The board also includes Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Attorney General Mark Herring and Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. The board of trustees is separate from the board of directors, so it’s unclear who actually knew about the invitation and how many of these titles are simply honorific but, still, some of these Democrats are now in the position of saying they will boycott an organization they help govern. There’s a word for this: Awkward.
It gets more awkward because some Democrats who aren’t in the General Assembly say they plan to attend. Among them: Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Fairfax County. Her rationale for attending the event: “It’s not about the president.” It’s about the 400th anniversary of the first meeting of the House of Burgesses and the birth of democracy in Virginia and, ultimately, the future United States.
The response by General Assembly Democrats is understandable: What Trump said is beyond objectionable, it is dangerous to our civic health, a point that we wish Republicans were quicker to appreciate. Trump is free to criticize these four members of Congress for their politics as much as he likes; that is part of democracy. But the moment he starts saying they should “go back” to where they came from, he crosses what ought to be a bright line. He has depicted them as not fully American — they are “the other.” We have lots of examples of other leaders doing this in history and none of them end well. Some have focused on calling Trump’s comments racist but there’s another “R” word that applies: This is recklessness. Republicans — once the party of caution and sobriety — ought to be just as alarmed as Democrats about where this might lead.
Is boycotting Trump at Jamestown the most effective way to deliver a message about the dangers of Trump’s rhetoric? There is another way: Democrats could make a point of attending. The lessons of Jamestown are probably lost on Trump; he does not appear to be one given to contemplation. By being there, though, Democrats can make sure that Trump does not rewrite history — because the history we’re celebrating next Tuesday directly contradicts what Trump stands for.
When organizations find themselves confused, business consultants advise them to return to their first principles for guidance. It is in Jamestown that we can most clearly see America’s first principles: We all came from somewhere else. (If you want to get technical, even Native Americans came from somewhere else; their ancestors walked across the ice on the Bering Strait, just a lot further back than 1607.)
It is in Jamestown that we can re-learn other founding principles: The Virginia experiment, which in time grew to become the American experiment, was multi-cultural from almost the very beginning. It was in Jamestown’s second year, 1608, that the English started bringing in craftsmen from other European countries — with particular emphasis on glass-blowers from Poland. The event Tuesday marks the seating of the first elected representatives in the American colonies, but there was an equally important moment that led up to those elections. At first, the English restricted those elections on to the English settlers — the Poles were disenfranchised. Their response: They went on strike — the first labor action in the “new world.” The English ran the numbers — the Poles were essential to the colony’s economy — and quickly relented. The Polish colonists were granted the same rights as the English ones, and the elections went forward. The English may have simply been thinking in practical terms — they needed glass exports to continue — but they wound up making a philosophical statement that informs our nation today. We are not a nation defined by ethnicity or national origin. In 1619, Poles could become fully-fledged Virginians. In time, that became how America worked, as well.
We may argue amongst ourselves — we might even criticize the government, which was practically a sport at Jamestown — but there can never be any question that we are all equally vested in this enterprise. It was in Virginia that we first refuted the concept of “go back where you came from” and instead embraced the ideal of “you may be different from me, but you are one of us, and we are all in this together.” It was also in Virginia that we first failed to live up to those ideals: A month after the first House of Burgesses, the first Africans arrived in Virginia. They, of course, were not treated as fully Virginian, or even fully human. We are only now, four centuries later, starting to apply all of our ideals to all of our citizens. But that doesn’t change the fact that the notion of equal citizenship despite our different ethnic backgrounds was first practiced in Jamestown.
That is a lesson that would be worth emphasizing at next week’s ceremonies. If Trump doesn’t make that point, somebody should be there to make it. That’s hard to do if you’re boycotting.