Friday, June 10, 2016

Self-Government in the Colonies-If You Can Keep It

The next part of If You Can Keep It by Eric Metaxas that really inspired me to share is the last part of the introduction, where he talks about the heritage of self-government of the Founding Fathers. I wanted to elaborate on this by sharing some unique experiences we've had in learning about self-government on our numerous trips to Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Jamestowne.

The very first representative government was established in America at Jamestown in 1619!

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Plaque in the 17th Century Chapel at Historic Jamestowne, Virginia


And we were there! Well, actually, through the benefit of time travel with historic  interpreters at Historic Jamestown on the very anniversary of the time when it actually happened! My son got to interact by portraying one of the burgesses while that historic moment was reenacted, and my husband got to be one of the guardsmen (while wearing a bit of shining armor)! I invite you to read all about it at the link!

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My Son at 1619 Reenactment at Historic Jamestowne


Political Life in Eighteenth-Century Virginia by Jack P. Greene is all about the burgesses of Virginia! This book is loaded with information. After a brief preview it details the 17th century background then goes into 18th century detail. I bought this in the Colonial Williamsburg bookstore, by the way. They are a great resource to well-researched information.

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Great book!
While reading the quotes from the book below, note how similar this sounds to the republic our Founding Fathers designed for us.

...the House of Burgesses had significant power. As the branch of the legislature most closely tied to the inhabitants of Virginia, it took the leading role in passing laws. Through a series of standing and temporary committees it considered the petitions and grievances that came to the legislature from the localities as well as all proposals made by members for passing new laws or amending old ones.

In the tradition of the British House of Commons, it was the only branch of government that could initiate any taxes to be levied on the inhabitants. Perhaps most important, in the same tradition, it was thought to be the primary guardian of those precious rights and privileges Virginians had brought with them from Britain. "One of the main Fundamentals of our Constitution," the House of Burgesses, as one contemporary remarked, was "the bulwark against oppression of the free inhabitants by their rulers." (p34)

With almost no disagreement over fundamental socioeconomic or political objectives, Virginians did not look upon government as an active agent of change. Rather, they saw it as an instrument that would do little more than provide maximum scope for individual enterprise by guaranteeing the liberty of its members to pursue their own private interests in an orderly context and by securing to them the fruits of their enterprise. (p44)

Over a century of self-government is precisely why the colonists rebelled when the king started to make decisions without their representation. The other colonies had self-government too, of course under their governors or however they had provisioned with Great Britain. Thus my use of "self-government" in this post is much less, as contrasted with how our Founding Fathers established our republic. However, during the colonial era, there was a form of self-government in the colonies. Each colony has its own fascinating history. I just happen to be a bit more on top of Virginia history since I now live in Virginia and I get to visit all these great history sites all the time and interact with interpreters and docents!

 We've met many of the revolutionary burgesses in person, again through the benefit of time travel through historic interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. I have 383 blog posts about our visits there. Rarely does a day go by on the streets or in one of the buildings of the historic area that we have not interacted with a burgess and learned lots!  Let me choose 2 days, the second trip we made with our children. On these three days of vacation from Texas we saw a complete history cycle of the town from rumblings to revolution. (Here is a peak at day 3, for those who are interested in how Williamsburg's American Revolution history rounds out with Benedict Arnold and Lafayette and the French Army! I love Colonial Williamsburg, if you couldn't tell, for opening my eyes to the 18th century! Thus my understanding of the present is magnified.) However the burgesses were only in town on 2 days of the Revolutionary City Street Theater program, because during the war the capital moved to "Richmond Towne, that little fishing village at the fall of the mighty James." Oops, sorry. That's what Patrick Henry always says. He's one of my favorites so I catch myself picking up many of his speech patterns!  If you want to see more interactions just put "burgess" into the little search box in my right side column. Or better yet, why not go to Colonial Williamsburg and meet with them yourself!

When you meet these burgesses on the street, they will testify to the very things quoted above. The interpreters immerse themselves in primary source documents to learn the history, the culture... everything about the 18th century to communicate it to us most effectively. Talking to them is almost like talking to a real burgess.   

On Monday, we met these burgesses:
Patrick Henry
Edmund Randolph

On Tuesday, we met these burgesses:
Colonel George Washington
Patrick Henry
John Randolph
lots of angry burgesses for having been disbanded by the royal governor
Peyton Randolph
Edmund Randolph
Mann Page

So, yes! When our Founding Fathers formed a republic, they already knew lots about self-government. At the Constitutional Convention they were developing the little bit of self-government that they had under the king into something grander, because now all citizens could participate and they no longer needed a royal governor to oversee them or a monarch to ultimately control them...which brings us back to my post yesterday about our duty. "A republic, if you can keep it," Benjamin Franklin told a passerby as he left the statehouse.

The full introduction in Metaxas' book goes into many other details...with a story from his past about the candlelight service at his church. It was quite moving and helped to symbolize the following quote..."We are ourselves this moment the keepers of the flame of liberty and the ones charged by Franklin and the other founders and by history past, present, and future with the keeping of this grand promise..." p11

 If You Can Keep It is available for preorder at Amazon now. And you can read more about it here at Eric Metaxas' website!

More blogging about If You Can Keep It to come!
 

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