Well, 2019 is a big year for Virginia.
This year, commemorative events recognizing Virginia’s 400-year role in the history of the United States — both in the creation of democracy as well as the beginning of slavery in the New World — are attracting history buffs, locals and politicians to historic sites.
Mixing politics with historical and commemorative events can be a fine line to tread for event organizers and the public, but is also a long-held tradition in Virginia.
That’s why events for the 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution this year celebrated the pivotal year of 1619 by inviting politicians ranging from local council members, to the President of the United States, to international leaders, said commemoration Executive Director Kathy Spangler.
Having politicians attend such events — which aim to stay nonpartisan — is governed by precedent of past commemorative events, Spanger added.
“Virginia has a very prescribed sense of protocol when it comes to introductions, seating, invitations,” Spangler said. “If we were exclusive, we’d been in those crosshairs about who and why and what,” Spangler said of inviting particular politicians but not others with different political stances.”
This year is the 400th anniversary of 1619. In that year, men established the first democratic legislative assembly in the New World and brought the first enslaved Africans to the colony. In that year, women were also brought from England to further establish the colony.
On July 30, commemoration organizers invited President Donald J. Trump to Jamestown Settlement to speak in honor of the first burgesses who convened July 30, 1619 in the inaugural legislative assembly session at Jamestown.
A number of other political figures attended or spoke at the event, including Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat.
Less than a month later, at Fort Monroe National Landmark in Hampton, more political figures attended the commemoration of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the New World during a somber, but hopeful event.
Gov. Ralph Northam, Fairfax, Cox, Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck were among the speakers at that event.
“We’ve worked really hard on balance,” Spangler said”
History and protocol
The Virginia Governor’s Office employs the Practical Protocol Guide for situations involving visiting dignitaries and special events.
The guide was first developed in 1977, after Virginia celebrated the bicentennial year in 1976.
“The many visiting dignitaries and official functions … brought about many questions regarding protocol and procedure,” the guide’s foreword says.
Since, there have been several updated iterations of the guide.
Spangler said that guide helped inform the 2019 Commemoration staff and organizers of the process in which politicians should be invited, introduced and treated.
Past commemorative events also set precedent for inviting political figures. President John Tyler attended 1857 commemorative events, Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1957 and 2007.
“These figures give it gravitas and … attract visibility and media to these events,” Spangler said. “From my perspective, this year and looking back, you have to in many ways cast a broad net. You tend to invite as many people as possible. There’s only one president at the time … so in our case, whatever president it had been, they’d have been invited.”
Spangler added the 2019 Commemoration used different committees for each commemorative event this year to choose speakers and invitees. For example, the July 30 committee chose Trump for the main invitee for the first democracy event. Meanwhile, former President Barack Obama was invited to the Fort Monroe first Africans event because of his involvement with Fort Monroe.
Obama was not able to attend, however.
Another large event host in Williamsburg is William & Mary — one of the country’s oldest colleges — which has been known to invite both political and cultural figures for presentations, lectures and ceremonies. The university follows a similar protocol in selecting political figures to participate.
“Political figures are often invited by student organizations,” university spokeswoman Erin Zagursky said. “W&M has a long tradition of allowing students to invite speakers to campus they want to hear from and those speakers represent a broad range of perspectives and opinions. Discussion, differing opinions, debate and dialogue are part of the educational experience here, and we are committed to the First Amendment and freedom of expression on campus.”
Spangler said inviting well-known political figures can benefit the events in multiple ways.
First, inviting big names can attract public and media attention to the events.
Second, inviting those people could help continue the social and cultural conversations revolving around the historical events and their roles in today’s world.
Spangler said some dissenting opinions are always expected when political figures attend highly public events, but — from the invitation standpoint — the events are intended to be nonpartisan.
By having a variety of speakers during Trump’s July 30 visit, 2019 Commemoration organizers aimed to keep the event nonpartisan while also allowing a rich variety of perspectives.
“I would say we certainly got asked questions [about inviting Trump] but people understood inviting a president to the 400th anniversary of democracy — people just had a spectrum of views,” Spangler said.
After the July 30 event, Trump tweeted that there was a “great reception in Jamestown by both REPUBLICANS & DEMOCRATS. Respect for our County’s incredible Heritage. Thank you!”
WYDaily multimedia reporter Alexa Doiron contributed to this report.