Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 110 / Number 1
The Jamestown Jubilees: "State Patriotism" and Virginia Identity in the Early Nineteenth Century
- By David James Kiracofe, pp. 35–68
In the early nineteenth century, after more than a hundred years of neglect and indifference to their past, Virginians "rediscovered"
Jamestown. On four occasions before the Civil War, they organized grand anniversary celebrations -- the Jamestown Jubilees -- that
were widely publicized and well attended. Mirroring the romantic nationalism then developing in Europe, elite white Virginians
sought to delineate an identity in reference to history, which included not only the historical record and the myths and memories
of heroic forefathers, but also the physical landscape of the first settlement. And although Jamestown Island itself was long
abandoned to agriculture, over the course of the antebellum period, the "ancient" site, with its romantic ruins, became a shrine
for Virginia patriots.
This essay examines the uses of history and commemoration by Virginians in the years before the Civil War to highlight
the development of a particular identity that was distinct not only from the larger union of states but also from the emergent
southern identity. The efforts of nineteenth-century Virginians to publicize their history were in part a defensive reaction
against a mounting sense of decline both in political influence and economic power relative to other states, north and south.
Yet they seemed to sense that the cause was already lost. Virginians therefore cultivated "State patriotism" -- distinct from
yet complementary to American nationalism -- by focusing on their unique historical experiences as a separate people. For
these Virginians, Jamestown, with its romantic myths of larger-than-life characters and its evocative ruins, represented an
authentic history that was theirs alone.