On July 30, 1619, the newly appointed Governor, Sir George Yeardley, set in motion the concept of self-government in the Virginia colony. He called forth the first representative legislative assembly in America, establishing Virginia’s House of Burgesses—today, the Virginia Assembly.
In the first Federalist essay, Alexander Hamilton famously observes: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Reflection and choice or accident and force, which will it be? Fortunate indeed are those who get to choose.
The Virginia colony was off to a rocky start.
As April 26, 1607 dawned, the colonists spied the coastline of Virginia. Three weeks later they came ashore 40 miles upriver at Jamestown.
After surviving a harrowing five-month voyage from England, the intrepid Virginia colonists anxiously opened the sealed envelope that would identify the seven members who were to govern them. As they read off the names, one stood out: John Smith? Whoops! John Smith was being held on board their ship, securely in chains. There had been this little “incident” mid-voyage, you see.
The exceptionally slow voyage (a normal crossing took three months) allowed disease to spring up in the cramped quarters and factions to form among the colonists. This did not escape notice of the expedition’s leader: Captain Christopher Newport. When the expedition docked at the Canary Islands to take on supplies, Smith, a swashbuckling adventurer and soldier whose life story reads like a Hollywood script, was suddenly clapped in chains by Newport, charged with trying to “usurp the government, murder the council, and make himself king (of Virginia).” He would eventually be released to assume his place on the council, but suspicions persisted.
The plan of the Virginia Company was to govern the new colony through a 13-man council in England and a similar, though smaller, council in Jamestown. What the planners of the expedition did not count on, were the austere and hazardous conditions the adventurers would encounter: Within six months, 80% of the colonists were dead from illness, the seven-man council had been reduced to four, and President of the Council, Edward Wingfield, had been impeached for maladministration. He was the one now in chains, perhaps the same ones that had restrained John Smith. Captain John Ratcliffe replaced Wingfield as President of the Council, but Smith would soon assume de facto command of the colony.
Unwilling to simply let the colony die, Smith enacted harsh measures, akin to martial law, to ensure that “gentlemen” and commoners alike contributed equally to the raising and hunting of food. Despite his efforts, the winter of 1609-10 became known as the “Starving Time.”
In an attempt to breathe new life into the colony—by then, hanging on by a thread—a new charter was granted in May 1609. The new charter included a provision that the colony would now extend from “sea to sea,” a gesture which provided no help to the beleaguered settlers. The charter established a new corporation and a new governing council in London that became the permanent administrative body of the corporation. A new governing council was created at Jamestown as well. A “Governour” was given extensive powers including the right to enforce martial law, if necessary.
By 1612, things were beginning to turn around. Numerous replenishments of supplies and manpower accompanied by a tenuous peace with the local natives had turned the settlement into a profitable and growing venture. A new, third charter was granted that year, extending Virginia’s jurisdiction eastward from the shoreline to include islands such as Bermuda. New settlers were each granted 100 acres of land.
On Friday, July 30, 1619, the newly appointed Governor, Sir George Yeardley, set in motion the concept of self-government in the colony. Under the instructions from the Virginia Company, he called forth the first representative legislative assembly in America, establishing “the oldest continuous law-making body in the New World,” Virginia’s House of Burgesses (today, the Virginia Assembly). The group convened in the colony’s largest building, the Jamestown Church, “to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia” which would provide “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.” The Governor, six men forming a Council of State, and, initially, twenty burgesses, two from each of ten settlements—“freely elected by the inhabitants thereof”—prepared to get underway.
An eleventh settlement, that of Captain John Martin, was not immediately allowed seats. A clause in Martin’s land patent exempted his plantation from the authority of the colony. There would thus be little point in including him as a Burgess; any laws he participated in creating would not apply to his own settlement. A secretary (former member of Parliament John Pory) and a Clerk (John Twine) were quickly appointed to their positions. Prayer was offered by Reverend Richard Buck: that “it would please God to guide and sanctifie all our proceedings to his owne glory and the good of this Plantation.”
An oath was then administered to all present The Oath of Supremacy, first established in 1534, required any person taking public or church office in England to swear allegiance to the English monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Roman Catholics who refused to take the oath were dealt with harshly. In April 1534, advisor to King Henry Sir Thomas More had refused to take the oath. He was imprisoned, tried for treason, and despite his close relationship with the King, beheaded the following year. Oaths, at least back then, were serious stuff.
The ten settlements represented that day in 1619 included “James Citty, Charles Citty, Henricus, Kiccowtan, Smythe’s Hundred, Martin’s Hundred [a different Martin than John Martin], Argall’s Guiffe, Flowerdieu Hundred, Captain Lawne’s Plantation and Captaine Warde’s Plantation.”
The lead representative of Warde’s Plantation, none other than Captain Warde himself, was immediately challenged by another Burgess as having settled in the colony without proper authority from the Company in England. But due to the great efforts Warde had made towards the colony’s success, particularly in bringing in “a good quantity of fishe,” he and his lieutenant were allowed to take their seats.
Once again, the Burgesses turned their attention to the issue of Captain John Martin’s two representatives. After a review of Martin’s patent, it was decided that the two Burgesses-in-waiting should leave until such time as Captain Martin himself appeared to discuss the matter. But the assembly was not quite done with Martin. The Burgesses were next presented with a complaint that an Ensign Harrison, under Martin’s employ, had forcibly taken corn from Indians who had refused to sell to him, leaving the Indians with some “copper beades and other trucking stuffe.” The Indians had complained to Chief Opchanacanough, who had complained to Governor Yeardley. False dealing with the Indians was a serious offense; the shaky, on-again, off-again peace with the various Indian tribes was fragile, easily broken. It was ordered that Captain Martin appear before the Burgesses forthwith. The order to appear began: “To our very loving friend, Captain John Martin, Esquire, Master of the ordinance.” Martin’s last title in the salutation might explain the gentle tone taken.
Next, the “greate Charter, or commission of privileges, order and laws,” sent from England in four books, was presented. It was decided that two committees would be commissioned to review the first two of the books to see if they contained anything “not perfectly squaring with the state of this Colony or any lawe which did presse or binde too harde, that we might by waye of humble petition, seeke to have it redressed.” The two committees gave their reports the following day.
The Burgesses composed six petitions to send to the Council in England. The first four dealt with administrative matters; the fifth asked the Council’s permission to build “a university and colledge” in the colony. This “colledge” would eventually be named Henricus College, which today lays claim to being the oldest college in North America. Its primary purpose? To educate the natives. The sixth petition asked permission to rename Kiccowtan settlement.
The next day, Sunday, August 1, one of the Burgesses, a Mr. Shelley, died unexpectedly.
On Monday, August 2nd, the infamous Captain Martin appeared before the Burgesses. He was asked whether he would disavow the stipulation in his patent that his settlement would be exempt from the established laws. He would not. Whereupon the assembly voted that his settlement’s representatives not be admitted. As to the charge that his employees had unfairly dealt with the natives, Martin acknowledged the charges as true and said he would put up a security bond to ensure it would never happen again.
The issues with Captain Martin thus settled, the Burgesses set about to make some laws (why not?).
Laws against idleness, gaming, drunkenness, and “excesse in apparel” were enacted. Settlers caught gaming at “dice and Cardes,” the winners at least, would forfeit their winnings; all the players would be fined “ten shillings a man.”
Not forgetting one of the main reasons for the settlement—the “propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God” —each settlement was to obtain “by just means” a number of the native children who would be educated by the settlers “in true religion and civile course of life.”
Each settler was required to plant six mulberry trees each year for seven years.
On Tuesday the 3rd of June, more laws.
On Wednesday the 4th of June, with many of his assembly coming down with malaria, Governor Yeardley decided that was enough for this session of the Burgesses and adjourned this first experiment in self-government. Many challenges lay ahead. While the 1619 House of Burgesses proved a turning point in the governing structure of Virginia, it did not end the economic difficulties brought on by crop failures, war with the Indians, disputes among factions, and bad investments.
For instance, after several years of strained coexistence, Chief Opchanacanough and his Powhatan Confederacy decided to eliminate the colony once and for all. On the morning of March 22, 1622, he and his men attacked the outlying plantations and communities up and down the James River in what became known as the Indian Massacre of 1622. More than 300 settlers were killed, about a third of the colony’s population. The fledgling developments at Henricus and Wolstenholme Towne, were essentially wiped out. Jamestown was spared only by the timely warning of a friendly Indian. Of the 6,000 people known to have come to the settlement between 1608 and 1624, only 3,400 would survive.
In 1624, King James I finally dissolved the Virginia Company’s charter and established Virginia as a royal colony. In 1776, when the Fifth Virginia Convention declared its independence from Great Britain and became the independent Commonwealth of Virginia, the House of Burgesses was renamed the House of Delegates, which continues to serve as the lower house of Virginia’s General Assembly to this day.
Republished with gracious permission from Constituting America.
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 Martin had been a member of the original Ruling Council; how he had received such a unique patent has not been explained.
 It would eventually be renamed Elizabeth City, site of the present day Hampton, Virginia.
 Found in the First charter of 1606.
The featured image is a colorized illustration from Cassell’s history of England, Vol 3., and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.