First General Assembly of Virginia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Under instructions from the London Company, Virginia governor George Yeardley called a General Assembly at Jamestown, thereby creating the first representative political body in the British colonies and beginning the long evolution of democracy in America.

Summary of Event

The first permanent English colony in America was established at Jamestown Jamestown , Virginia, in 1607. By 1618, the colony had neither prospered greatly nor realized the full expectations of the London Company London Company (also known as the Virginia Company of London), which had been responsible for its founding. Twice, the London Company had been reorganized in unsuccessful efforts to make the Virginia venture turn a profit, but by 1618, it was again on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1617, as an inducement to settlement, the company had sanctioned the introduction of private land tenure and the creation of particular plantations, which had resulted in widely scattered settlements and confused land titles. Colonization;England of Virginia [kw]First General Assembly of Virginia (July 30-Aug. 4, 1619) [kw]Virginia, First General Assembly of (July 30-Aug. 4, 1619) [kw]Assembly of Virginia, First General (July 30-Aug. 4, 1619) [kw]General Assembly of Virginia, First (July 30-Aug. 4, 1619) Government and politics;July 30-Aug. 4, 1619: First General Assembly of Virginia[0820] Colonization;July 30-Aug. 4, 1619: First General Assembly of Virginia[0820] American Colonies;July 30-Aug. 4, 1619: First General Assembly of Virginia[0820] First General Assembly, Virginia Virginia;First General Assembly Argall, Samuel Pory, John Sandys, Sir Edwin Yeardley, Sir George

The emergence of private landowners in Virginia soon made feasible the establishment of a representative assembly, but the colony’s economic base was still insecure. The colonists grew more restive, especially after 1617, when Sir Samuel Argall Argall, Samuel became deputy governor and returned the colony to stricter discipline by rigorously enforcing the Lawes, Divine, Morall, and Martiall, which had been adopted by the Virginia Company in 1612 and provided for partial government by martial law.

Against this background, the London Company resolved anew in 1618 to revitalize its Virginia venture. Led by Sir Edwin Sandys, Sandys, Sir Edwin the company embarked on an ambitious course of action that aimed at a comprehensive reorganization of the entire colonial operation. The company embodied its plans in a series of instructions and commissions, the so-called Great Charter Great Charter , which was designed to reform land tenure, improve local administration, and replace the Lawes, Divine, Morall, and Martiall with English common law and a more representative and resident government.

In 1619, Deputy Governor Argall was accused of self-interested dealings, including being responsible for the importation of the first African slaves Slavery;Virginia into Virginia, which had put the Virginia Company heavily in debt. Argall was relieved of his duties by the London Company; he escaped arrest only by fleeing Virginia with most of his wealth before the arrival of his replacement, Sir George Yeardley Yeardley, Sir George . Yeardley had lived in Virginia from 1610 to 1617 and had been acting governor for his last two years in the colony, after which he had returned to England. In 1618, he was knighted and sent back to Virginia officially to assume the governorship, which he did the following year.

Yeardley was instructed to call an assembly consisting of himself, a council of state appointed by the London Company, and burgesses elected by the freemen of the colony. The assembly would meet not more than once a year, except on “very extraordinary and important occasions.” It would serve as a court of justice, and it was to have the power to enact such general laws and ordinances for the colony’s welfare as should be deemed necessary. These laws were to be subject to a gubernatorial veto and to review by the London Company. The legal name for the new assembly was The Treasurer and Company of Adventurers and Planters of the City of London, for the First Colony in Virginia.

Following his return to Jamestown, Yeardley issued a call for the assembly, and on July 30, 1619, the first meeting of a representative legislative body in the New World convened in the church in Jamestown. This church, measuring only 50 feet by 20 feet (15 meters by 6 meters), had been built in 1617 by Argall to replace one that had collapsed. It was apparently situated along the James River, outside the protective walls of James Fort. The assembly was composed of the governor, six councilors, and twenty-two burgesses—two from each of eleven settlements (plantations, “hundreds,” and towns). The burgesses had been elected by the votes of all freemen who were seventeen years of age or older. After selecting John Pory Pory, John (secretary of the colony and one of the councilors) as speaker and taking the necessary oaths of allegiance and supremacy, the General Assembly proceeded to its business.

After deliberating the qualifications of its members, a tradition followed by the later Congress of the United States, two members were rejected pending clarification of the patents from the London Company. Beginning its legislative work, the assembly adopted several revisions of the Great Charter that the company suggested. It then enacted a series of laws dealing with relations with the Indians, the dress and conduct of the settlers, church attendance, and measures to promote certain industries, including flax, hemp, silk, and wine. With the completion of the legislative work, the assembly switched to a court of justice and resolved several criminal cases.

This first session of the General Assembly was remarkably short, lasting only six days. Yeardley, “by reason of extream heat, both paste and likely to ensue,” which had apparently caused the illness of several burgesses and the governor himself, ordered a review of all that had been accomplished and then adjourned on August 4, 1619. The next session was scheduled for March 1, 1620.

Significance

Despite the brevity of the meeting, the first General Assembly of Virginia made an important beginning. It ushered in a new era in colonial government and transformed Virginia from a plantation colony, supported and governed by a trading company largely for profit, into a self-supporting and partially self-governing political community. Although the assembly would undergo modifications in its functions and its right to exist would be challenged after the London Company lost its charter in 1625, that first meeting in July, 1619, established the precedent for the development of representative political institutions in British North America. However, this House of Burgesses, as the General Assembly is sometimes called, did not represent a radical departure from European political institutions. It was essentially the transplanting to America of the traditional European form of representative government.

Although its legality was questioned when the Virginia Company was dissolved in 1624 and Virginia became a royal colony controlled directly by the king, the General Assembly survived and nurtured the elusive goal of self-government until it bore fruit in 1776.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andrews, Matthew Page. Virginia: The Old Dominion. Richmond, Va.: Dietz Press, 1949. Chapters 7 and 8 detail the beginning and the early history of the General Assembly.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Billings, Warren M. A Little Parliament: The Virginia General Assembly in the Seventeenth Century. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2004. Describes the founding and evolution of the Virginia General Assembly, demonstrating how the legislative body established in seventeenth century Jamestown formed the basis of America’s representative government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bridenbaugh, Carl. Jamestown, 1544-1699. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Chapter 7 explains the problem of self-interest in relation to the establishment of the General Assembly.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hume, Ivor Noël. The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke to James Towne. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. Chapter 13 covers the problems and conditions that spurred the creation of the first assembly.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morton, Richard L. The Tidewater Period, 1607-1710. Vol. 1 in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960. Chapter 4 describes the land distribution in 1617 that made possible a representative assembly.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Randolph, Edmund. History of Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1970. Chapter 3 covers events relating to the assembly from 1619 until the end of the Virginia Company in 1624.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tyler, Lyon Gardiner, ed. Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907. Includes the proceedings of the assembly in 1619, taken from primary accounts, plus editorial comments. Lists the original burgesses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Willison, George F. Behold Virginia: The Fifth Crown. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952. Chapter 15 details problems in Virginia preceding the first meeting of the General Assembly.
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