Making It Up As They Went Along

One of my favorite teaching subjects is the settlement of the Jamestown colony. Oh, how the students get a kick out of the haplessness of the first Virginians. Just take a look at who ventured across the Atlantic in the first place. Who on earth would populate a colony with young men? Who would think that silversmiths and perfumers would be more ready for the exigencies of building a town than carpenters and craftsmen?

That’s without even thinking about Jamestown’s geography. Settling in the midst of a malarial swamp at the height of summer hardly seems like the most sensible course of action. Especially in a world without air conditioning. Then add in the imperious attitude toward Native Americans, and you end up with a combustible mix that seems destined to end either in the annihilation of the English or an ignominious return home.

The return home almost came to pass in 1610, before Lord De La Warr happened to catch the escaping colonists and forced them to return. Then, a period of quasi-military discipline helped to turn the colony’s fortunes around. But it was another few years before the future success of the colony began to seem inevitable – the discovery of tobacco, combined with a shift in policy towards encouraging individual cultivation of land and a recognition of the importance of settler consent in affairs of government.

Then again, what else should we have expected from the Virginia colonists? The whole purpose of settling at Jamestown was that it hadn’t been claimed by another European country. The instructions explicitly demanded setting up far enough away from the Spanish that they wouldn’t bother to attack. Knowledge of that part of the eastern American seaboard was close to non-existent – banking on the discovery of gold may have been excessively optimistic, but no more ridiculous than banking on the ability to provide, well, any other individual staple good or commodity.

The Virginian colonists, in short, were making it up as they went along. They were taking a scary leap into the unknown, and cobbling together a plan based on what they had heard about Spain in Central America and what they knew of the Old World. Unsurprisingly, the plan was rather unrealistic. The colony survived through a series of fortunate circumstances more than any visionary foresight from English promoters. Yet in time, that set of circumstances became transformed into a profitable and long-lasting society.*

When delegates came to Philadelphia in 1787 to discuss amending the Articles of Confederation, they were part of a society that had been making it up as they went along, too. It was crazy to think that governments long established could be replaced, overnight, with something similarly stable and long-lasting. Reading Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration explains something of that ambivalence. Why else would mankind be predisposed to consider evils sufferable if change was not a complex, painful, and uncertain process?

That thought has been sticking in my mind as the Presidential election heats up, when we are subjected to endless encomiums about the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and their foresight. The delegates that met at Philadelphia, as I explained in my last post, had little idea that their Constitution would even become law, much less survive for 225 years.

And they were well aware that Americans were making up their government as they went along. Their combination of looking to the future while relying on guides from their past had led to all sorts of stumbles and missteps. Why else would America have needed a (second) convention to discuss the general failings of the Articles of Confederation? How else could the Framers have looked at state constitutions which guarded against the British evil of executive tyranny, only to replace it with state legislatures that frequently and flagrantly overstepped their legal limits.**

I’ve been thinking about this because in praising the far-seeing wisdom of the framers of the Constitution, we are holding them to a higher standard than they themselves would have done. Think about just how tentative their preamble was – a ‘more perfect union’. Plenty of work still to be done.

In fact, if there was far-seeing wisdom from the Framers, it was the wisdom of Socrates. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, the Framers knew what they did not know. Alexander Hamilton gives the classic example of this in Federalist 35, when he argues that no generation knows how society will develop in the future; consequently, any constitution should only lay out general principles.

This argument, by the way, explicitly aimed to justify the broad powers of taxation given to the federal government. It was by no means a small-government screed. (Though it was also not a forerunner of the welfare state – Hamilton also advocated that government would naturally be run by merchants in perpetuity).

The point is, to expect a fountain of political wisdom to come from a snapshot in time is unrealistic. We never have all the facts, and even if we did, they would soon change. It’s easy to look back and praise or chastise the decisions made in the past. It’s harder to be sure what will happen in the future. With the study of history, we might not have to make up quite so much. But it is ridiculous to place greater weight on the past than even contemporaries knew it could bear. To a certain extent, we’re always making it up as we go along. And whether we’re thinking about 1607, 1787, or 2017, we could do with keeping that in mind.

*I have avoided using the word ‘successful’ as that would very much depend on your perspective.

**Just take a quick look at the report of Pennsylvania’s Council of Censors in 1784!

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About Ken Owen

Assistant Professor of History, University of Illinois at Springfield
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