The Jamestown Colony, Donald Trump, and the Problem of Patriarchal Leadership

*Edward Maria Wingfield’s 1607-08 presidency of the Jamestown Colony might lend insight to PEOTUS Donald Trump’s refusal to divest from his business holdings

Last semester’s Colonial America class inevitably spent some time thinking about the Jamestown Colony, especially the struggles of its early years. While we addressed the Virginia Company’s plans, settler demographics, economic development, environmental factors, and Native relations, each of those areas ultimately tied back to the supply and leadership problems that generated two of the colony’s more notorious episodes–the (alleged?) cannibalism of the Starving Time, and the power struggle between John Smith and other councilors.

One of the articles my students found for us to read was Michael LaCombe’s “‘A continuall and dayly Table for Gentlemen of fashion’: Humanism, Food, and Authority at Jamestown, 1607-1609,” which considers the ways in which Jamestown leaders used food to symbolize their status and authority. Edward Maria Wingfield, George Percy, John Smith, and even Powhatan all used public displays of material wealth to legitimize their power because those occasions encouraged peers and subordinates to acknowledge leaders’ personal power, an acknowledgement that conferred authority.

(Left: Edward Maria Wingfield. Right: John Smith.)

In other words, English colonial leaders at Jamestown felt compelled to present “a self which confirmed the authority of their office” (672), even if Wingfield and Smith, in particular, based their claims to authority on different models of leadership. The challenge for elite English colonists was that many of the material reflections of status traditionally used to convey that authority were lacking in Jamestown; houses and clothes, in particular, were either rudimentary or in limited supply. Food, on the other hand, came from three sources: company-supplied rations distributed by the colony’s leaders, the private stores of wealthier colonists, and trade with Powhatan neighbors. Because the colony’s councilors were also generally its wealthiest settlers, the line between their private stores and company rations was at times unclear, sometimes deliberately so since leaders were expected to fairly distribute company rations while also using their private stores to support struggling individuals. John Smith’s criticisms of Wingfield and other elite councilors thus emphasized the degree to which they maintained their dietary habits–eating fine foods in highly visible meals–while the men around them went hungry. His concern was not those men’s private stores, but their monopolization of the choicest foods from the common store to eat as a marker of their status. According to Smith’s critique, then, men like Wingfield attempted to reprise a feudal model of “patriarchal leadership” in which their political authority rested on their social status, but failed to legitimize that authority through their regard for the welfare of ordinary people.

Reminiscent of Wingfield’s apparent inability to alter his consumption patterns, Donald Trump’s unique personal authority seems to be based on his distinctive wealth and its trappings. Despite ethics concerns, he cannot divest because that would undermine his ability to display markings of the social status underlying the authority on which he campaigned–that is, it’s his wealth that lends him the appearance of expertise on which he based his appeal to voters. Those public displays are apparent when he appears at his golf courses and resorts, chooses to fly in his own plane rather than Air Force One, prefers Trump Tower to the White House, and sits for photographs in his lavish penthouse. LaCombe explains that in Jamestown, “what ultimately mattered was a man’s ability to convince [the Virginia Company’s] members that he understood what had gone wrong and how to fix it, that his personal qualities and experiences had given him more general knowledge, a claim to what Eric Ash has called ‘the authority conferred by the perception of expertise’” (673). It’s Trump’s wealth that bolsters his claims to unique personal expertise–how many times have we heard the phrase “Believe me” lately?–and his claims that only he has the solutions to whatever (mostly, it seems, economic) problems voters face.

Moreover, relinquishing his business holdings would distance him from the things that cement his position in a social hierarchy based on wealth. Patriarchalism assumes that social inequality derives from a divine ordering of the cosmos, while patriarchal models of leadership assert that “society’s proper functioning depend[s] at bottom on leaders” while “the political role of ordinary settlers…[is] to witness and affirm the claims of their leaders” (679). In other words, Trump’s commitment to this form of authority argues that his wealth is a result of his natural superiority that qualifies him as a leader. Divesting would distance him from the businesses that generate that wealth and support his habits that display it, thus flattening a social hierarchy and making him relatable, which in turn would undermine his claims to authority.

Other models of leadership, however, rest their authority claims on sympathy and relatability. In critiquing Wingfield, Smith presented himself as adhering to an alternative form of authority. Embracing the image of a humanist leader, he based his claim to political authority on his willingness to share in the rations, living conditions, and labor of ordinary settlers, subordinating his own needs to the common good. The model of leadership Trump has embraced, though, rests on acknowledgement, functioning only if a community chooses to confer authority on the individual claiming it. Unlike Wingfield, who did defend himself by pointing to elements of leadership that fit a humanist model, there’s nothing about Trump that suggests a willingness to share in the hardships of ordinary Americans–and in fact his claims to authority rest entirely on his distance from those hardships. His need to continually confirm and even bolster those claims may explain his inability to stop campaigning, since he demonstrates none of the qualifications–a history of public service or ability to subordinate his own private ends to the common good–of a humanist leader.

For those seeking solace, it may be reassuring that Smith’s arguments won the day, at least in much of popular memory. In Virginia, Wingfield was ultimately charged with abusing his station–mostly by using common stores to maintain his own status claims–removed from office, and heavily fined.

Michael A. LaCombe, “‘A continuall and dayly Table for Gentlemen of fashion’: Humanism, Food, and Authority at Jamestown, 1607-1609,” The American Historical Review 115, no. 3 (June 2010): 669-87.

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