Four hundred years ago this week, the first representative form of government in the New World met in the fledgling Virginia colony at Jamestown. From July 30 to August 4, 1619, more than two dozen men met in the settlement’s newly built church. This assembly included the governor, Sir George Yeardley, at least four of his councilors, and initially 22 “burgesses”—a British term that means an inhabitant of a town or borough with full rights of citizenship.
Yeardley had arrived that spring in Jamestown, with instructions from the colony’s sponsor, the Virginia Company of London, to summon a “Generall Assemblie,” elected by eligible men, to introduce “just Laws for the happy guiding” of the people.
The free, white male inhabitants of every town, company burrough and particular (or private) plantation throughout the colony were allowed to choose two burgesses. The assembly’s work covered a wide range of business, from commercial and economic issues to regulating moral offenses, overseeing matters of religion and relations with the Powhatan Indians. The assembly served also as a court. “The Assembly was an important part of the Great Reforms that swept away the existing military government and created a new democratic society based on the rule of law and consent of the governed,” according to Historic Jamestowne.
An important order required tobacco of the best sort to be sold for at least three shillings per pound. Of the approximately 36 general laws passed during its first session, many included prohibitions against gambling, drunkenness and idleness as well as a measure that made Sabbath observance mandatory. By the early 1640s, the unicameral assembly evolved into a two-house form of government more closely resembling what we now call the Virginia General Assembly. The House of Burgesses was the forerunner of today’s Virginia’s House of Delegates, which was renamed in 1776. That same year an elected Senate of Virginia replaced the governor and his appointed councilors in the assembly.
“The first charter of the Virginia Company (1606) guaranteed those who emigrated to Virginia the ‘privileges, franchises and immunities’ they would have enjoyed in England,” said A.E. Dick Howard, a renowned constitutional scholar and the Warner-Booker Distinguished Professor of International Law at University of Virginia School of Law. “The creation of the first legislative assembly in 1619 was a concrete step toward making representative government a core principle of emerging constitutionalism in America. In time, in 1776, Americans declared independence and took government into their own hands. For generations, they had practiced a kind of self-government. That experiment had begun in 1619.”
Fast forward four centuries. Some legislative themes continue: Tobacco still remains a dominant topic at the General Assembly. Casino gambling is expected to be a top issue at the upcoming legislative session. The regulation of alcohol is a perennial concern. But the composition of today’s assembly is far different from that of 1619, when only white males could serve. In 2019, that’s not the case.
The assembly’s 400th anniversary can’t be commemorated without examining two other seminal events that occurred in 1619: the arrival of the first enslaved Africans, who were traded in exchange for provisions, and the decision to recruit English women to bring stability to the settlement. Virginia and the nation continue to wrestle with the painful history of slavery and discrimination, and how best to confront these issues accurately and inclusively.
The events of the summer of 1619 set the course for the United States’ representative form of government and lay the foundations for the democratic principles we as Americans cherish. Our nation’s history takes precedence over recent partisan squabbling surrounding the attendance of President Donald Trump at Tuesday’s commemoration. Elected officials who plan to stay away from Jamestown diminish the significance of this momentous occasion.
This week’s events transcend people and politics. Virginia’s lawmakers should stand together to herald this remarkable achievement. The Virginia General Assembly remains the oldest continuous law-making body in the Western Hemisphere, something every citizen of the commonwealth, and nation, should celebrate.