As some of you already may know, I went to Jamestown to celebrate the former colony’s 400th anniversary. I’ve already written about my inspirational weekend there. Jamestown is a powerful story, but I have become more and more downhearted the more I have thought about Jamestown in comparison with us and contemporary values.  

I wonder if we aren’t in the process of eradicating the very values that helped Jamestown succeed. I promise I’ll stop talking about Jamestown before the 800th anniversary rolls around. But will you indulge me just once more? I can’t get certain unpleasant thoughts on this subject off my mind.

What if we’d had network news in 1607, when the first batch of men put ashore at Jamestown? Let’s engage in some “thought experiments” of an admittedly fantastical nature. If the members of our 1607 press corps (let us picture them in Elizabethan ruffs) had values similar to what I believe to be those of our contemporary news media, they might very well have opposed Jamestown from the start. Jamestown was an intensely capitalistic venture, with important people in London hoping to make a bundle.

I can imagine that the death toll, and it was considerable, would have been exploited to make people in London feel it was time for the colonists to come home. In one year, 440 settlers of the 500 settlers then at Jamestown perished. “You have been walking on them,” Dick Cheatham, a historical re-enactor dressed as John Rolfe, the man who married Pocahontas, said. “They’re in the dirt around here by the hundreds.”

Can you imagine viewing “the fallen” on the 1607 Town Crier (with Shakespearean music in the background)? But there was no televised Town Crier, and the people at Jamestown buried their dead and went on with the terrible chore of surviving. Jamestown was saved from extinction one time by (as he is recalled in the records) “an honest, lowborn man” named Captain John Smith. Smith may well be the first American hero, and you can bet your bottom dollar he wouldn’t have appealed to the elites in the media. He was a braggart who sometimes falsified the record, and a fighting man who had been all over the world with his sword. (Actually, Smith was a bit much even for those heartier days he eventually ended up sidelined in London and did something very modern: he wrote his memoirs.)

But in his heyday he asserted control over the colony and kept it going. He put forward a formula that would for a long time would be a particularly American approach: “He who does not work, will not eat.” There were a lot of lazy folks in Jamestown, but Smith made them work. He would not have been amused if colonists had said they needed job training first. This was self-reliance in the service of survival (and ultimately of creating a great country). I sometimes fear that in our day we won’t face adversity. We want to give up, as so many do in Iraq, because the going is just too hard. It helps if you don’t have TV.

After Smith left the colony, Sir Thomas Dale, the governor, introduced something that is not always held in high esteem by the left: private property. David Boaz, a vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, has written about this aspect of Jamestown. At this point things were so dire that the colonists had almost thrown in the towel. They had boarded ships to return to England when Dale arrived with three ships and supplies. According to Boaz:

Dale’s most important reform was to institute private property. He allotted every man three acres of land and freed them to work for themselves. And then, the Virginia historian Matthew Page Andrews wrote, ‘As soon as the settlers were thrown upon their own resources, and each freeman had acquired the right of owning property, the colonists quickly developed what became the distinguishing characteristic of Americans — an aptitude for all kinds of craftsmanship coupled with an innate genius for experimentation and invention.’ John Rolfe said that once private property was instituted, men could engage in ‘gathering and reaping the fruits of their labors with much joy and comfort.’

“It was here that free enterprise flourished, making this the land of boundless opportunity,” Harrison Schroeder, governor of the Jamestowne (sic) Society, said over the weekend. I think that we have lost sight of something important: free enterprise can save people, and, while charity is a wonderful thing, government programs that reduce self-reliance ultimately handicap those they were designed to help.

Of course, bad things happened at Jamestown. Slavery, an enduring shame, was introduced, a terrible ill in our nation’s history, one from which the United States still suffers. Slavery is not the only aspect of Jamestown we devoutly wish had been different. There was also the terrible conflict with the Powhatan tribe, a noble people. The best you can do with the unjustifiable in history is to look it in the face and tell the truth.

But the achievements of the colonists, flawed as are all human endeavors, were magnificent. Could we survive such dire circumstances today? Will we achieve a good end in Iraq or will we decide it’s not worth the suffering? It is not a matter of whether we are tough enough. It is a matter of whether our values, especially a belief that enterprise alone can truly make us prosper, would allow us to call into being the toughness required to prevail in a dangerous world.

Charlotte Hays is senior editor at the Independent Women’s Forum.