400th Jamestown Anniversary Comes at Significant Moment for Democratic Governments
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Just a few miles from where it all began, politicians, civil servants, journalists, academics and citizens will gather at the College of William and Mary to consider the future of representative democracy in the United States and the world.
On Tuesday, it will be 400 years to the day that men from 11 of Virginia’s major English settlements met at Jamestown in 1619. It was the first meeting of a representative legislature in what would become the United States, paving the way for an experiment in democracy that continues to the present day.
“What happened at Jamestown July 30 to Aug. 4 was the foundation of the democratic model in America,” said Kathy Spangler, 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution executive director. “It has had bearing on what our democracy became.”
A special joint session of the Virginia General Assembly is among the events slated to celebrate the anniversary Tuesday.
President Donald Trump will deliver remarks during the commemoration, a White House official confirmed.
“The President will give remarks that celebrate our great American tradition of representative democracy,” he said.
In a news release sent out Friday evening, American Evolution spokesperson Elizabeth Bement also confirmed that President Donald Trump will speak at the event. The release states that Trump will join civic leaders from around the country in commemorating the first representative legislative assembly.
Two marquee events in the 2019 Commemoration come this week: a statewide series of activities that reflects on key events in the development of the United States that took place four centuries ago — among them the first meeting of a representative legislature in English North America and the arrival of the first enslaved Africans.
To recognize the anniversary of representative government, the 2019 Commemoration will hold a Forum on the Future of Representative Democracy, featuring public programming Wednesday, in addition to the General Assembly session Tuesday. In recognition of the first enslaved Africans, a three-day remembrance event will take place Aug. 23-25 at Fort Monroe in Hampton.
The anniversary comes at a significant moment for democratic governments, both at home and abroad.
At the end of 2017, more than half of the countries on earth with populations of at least 500,000 people (96 of 167 countries) were democracies of some description, according to a May 2019 Pew Research Center report.
However, a median of 51% of people across 27 countries polled expressed dissatisfaction with how democracy was working in their countries. Forty-five percent of people were satisfied, according to an April 2019 Pew Research report.
The report notes that anger at political elites, anxiety about social changes and economic dissatisfaction have “fueled political upheaval in regions around the world in recent years.”
Despite these challenges, Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox said he was optimistic about the future, and that the forum would provide a means for Americans to consider how to address the challenges of modern democracy, ranging from the influence of social media to friction between different branches of government.
“There’s a whole host of things we have to tackle as far as a future for representative democracy is concerned,” said Cox, who is a co-chairman of the 2019 Commemoration steering committee.
Though the forum is an academic undertaking, the panels will seek to frame conversations toward solutions for the problems discussed, Cox said, adding that he hopes the programming lights a fire under audience members to learn more about government and participate in the democratic process.
“It is still the best system, but how do we improve on it and make it work? This has to be our goal,” he said. “You go through eras that are tougher than others, but it’s still the best system mankind has ever seen.”
On Wednesday, the only day the forum is open to the public, there are panels and discussions dedicated to diversity, the balance between majority rule and minority rights, rule of law, civic education and other topics at sessions to be held at Kaplan Arena. Registration to attend is free and can be completed on the 2019 Commemoration’s website.
Wednesday’s sessions will feature a range of panelists, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, philanthropist David Rubenstein and law professor and legal commentator Jeffrey Rosen. Other speakers include former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, former Governor George Allen and Rep. Bobby Scott. Journalists such as Andrea Mitchell and Ann Compton will serve as panel moderators.
“The forum allows us to learn about the evolution of our democracy,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, who represents Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District. “We can always improve on our democracy.”
While polarization is frequently in the headlines, there’s still room for hope, Luria said. She noted she and the rest of Virginia’s delegation to the House of Representatives frequently meet to discuss their work collaboratively, though the delegation is split between Democrats and Republicans.
“We really work to find that common ground,” she said.
That spirit of civility and collaboration seeks to find its moment in a joint session of the General Assembly Tuesday, which will be held in recognition of the first meeting of a representative legislature in English North America.
The day starts with an early-morning ceremony at the Memorial Church at Historic Jamestowne. Later, a joint session of the General Assembly is expected to convene at Jamestown Settlement in further recognition of the anniversary. Jamestown Settlement expects to open to visitors at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
At Tuesday’s proceedings, descendants of Virginia Indians and English colonists will rub shoulders with Virginia state lawmakers, as well as federal lawmakers and members of other state legislatures. In addition to Trump, Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to deliver remarks during the event.
Amid news reports Trump had been invited to the event, Democratic House and Senate leaders announced they would not attend any programming that included the president.
©2019 Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
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