Susan Dalgety: Journey’s end and the origins of a country under attack

Jamestown in Virginia, with its  'faire meddowes and goodly tall trees', was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Picture: Ken Lund/Wikicommons
Jamestown in Virginia, with its 'faire meddowes and goodly tall trees', was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Picture: Ken Lund/Wikicommons
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Our American journey is almost at an end. Our trusty, if rather old, campervan has survived 15,000 miles, 35 states, two deserts and the potholes of Michigan, and she is now on a boat heading back to Liverpool, grateful no doubt for the rest.

We are resting too, spending Thanksgiving weekend in a cheap, but comfortable, hotel in the seaside town of Virginia Beach overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

The Marjac Suites may have seen better days, but the view from our concrete balcony is priceless, and ageless.

When the ocean is calm, schools of dolphins cavort in the early winter sunshine. Container ships, carrying goods from across the world, lurk on the horizon, day and night.

And 3500 miles away, according to the sign on the boardwalk outside our digs, lies the Northern Irish borough of Ards and North Down.

There is nothing now between us and home but the ocean.

Three hundred years ago,105 Englishmen crossed that same ocean in search of a new world and, they hoped, to make their fortune. After a four-month voyage their three ships landed in a bay four miles along the coast from our holiday home.

The men were the members of the Virginia Company, a private enterprise set up to exploit the riches of this largely unexplored land. They were going to claim America for England, wresting it from the Spanish who had, until then, been the only European immigrants.

Standing on Cape Henry, where the men came ashore for the first time on 26th April 1606, it is easy to imagine their excitement.

Even in late November the land is lush with vegetation, the seashore littered with oyster shells. One of the pioneers later wrote that he was “almost ravished” by the freshwater streams and “faire meddowes and goodly tall trees” he encountered when they first landed.

Their American dream quickly turned sour, however, as their early settlement of Jamestown, a few miles upriver from the landing spot, was ravaged by hunger and disease.

They were also under constant attack by the Powhatan people, rightly aggrieved that strangers had invaded their homeland. And during one particularly bad period, called the Starving Time, the men were so desperate for food they resorted to cannibalism.

But they survived, and thanks to tobacco, eventually flourished, laying the foundations of what became the world’s most powerful modern society, the United States of America.

Archaeologist William Kelso, who led the team that uncovered much of the history of early Jamestown, says that while the roots of the settlement were English, it evolved into something new.

He explains: “You look up and down the river as the settlement expanded and you find it is not like England. The houses are different – the towns, the agriculture, the commerce. They were really laying the roots of American society.”

“Despite the agony, the tragedy, and all of the missteps, says Kelso, “this is where modern America began.”

The secret to modern America lay in a sealed wooden box, measuring about two feet tall and 18 inches wide, which Admiral Newport, leader of the expedition, had carried with him from England.

Inside, the officials of the Virginia Company had placed instructions for governing the new colony, to be opened only on landing. The papers included the names of the seven men who were to form the first council of Virginia.

And 12 years later, after demands from the growing number of settlers, representative government was introduced.

The right to vote was only given to white men who owned property, and the Virginia Company had the power of veto over the new assembly, but from this modest beginning you can trace a direct route to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of 1789, and Donald J Trump.

Most Americans revere their constitution, the highest law in the land. It sets out a framework for their three, equal branches of government: an executive, led by an elected President, a legislature elected by the people, and an independent judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court.

Schoolchildren learn about it from nursery, the gun lobby quote its second amendment – the right to bear arms – as proof against sensible gun control. Countries across the world look to it as a blueprint for democracy.

Barack Obama was a constitutional professor, his progressive politics steeped in the document that begins “We, the people”. But in his final speech as President, less than two years ago, he warned that while the constitution is a “remarkable, beautiful gift… it’s really just a piece of parchment”.

“It has no power on its own,” he went on. “We the people give it power… America is no fragile thing, but the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”

It seems that Obama’s successor also regards the constitution as “just a piece of parchment,” but one that can be ignored at Presidential will.

In an unprecedented attack on America’s independent judiciary earlier this week, Trump accused “Obama judges” of “making our country unsafe”. Their sin? Daring to question his draconian asylum policy.

His onslaught exposed his authoritarian instincts. Trump does not understand, and cares less, about democracy.

He is President; therefore, his word is the law. He models his leadership on Vladimir Putin, not Abraham Lincoln.

But Chief Justice John G Roberts Jr, head of the Supreme Court, does care. In a move that could prove to be a turning point in this most turbulent period of American history, the judge issued a stern rebuke. “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” he said. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

Over the coming weeks and months, “that independent judiciary” is likely play a key role in the constitutional drama that is unfolding in front of the American people.

Rumours are rife that the Mueller investigation is coming to a head, with hints of charges being laid against the President’s eldest son, maybe even Trump himself.

If that happens, Trump will not slink away into the night, as Nixon did in 1974, when he was on the brink of impeachment.

He will go to war against the very ideas embodied in the founding documents of this great country, from the list of members for the first Jamestown council to the constitution etched on parchment.

And by doing so, he will be going to war against his own people.