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House of Burgesses

From Academic Kids

The House of Burgesses was the name given to the first elected legislative assembly in the New World. The House of Burgesses, over time, came to represent the official legislative body of the colony of Virginia, and later, the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The Virginia House of Burgesses was formed initially as part of a series of government reforms at Jamestown colony. Owned by the Virginia Company of London, the Jamestown colony only had around 1,000 colonists by 1619, so the Virginia Company made changes that the company hoped would make the colony more profitable. The Virginia Company established English Common Law, encouraged private investment from Jamestown settlers which allowed them to own their own land rather than simply being sharecroppers, and the creation of a legislative body similar to the British Parliament that would meet once annually.

Prompted by the Virginia Company, colonial governor Sir George Yeardley helped facilitate elections of representatives, or burgesses, to this new legislative body that would come from eleven Virginia boroughs adjacent to the James River, along with eleven additional burgesses.

The first meeting of the House of Burgesses occurred on July 30, 1619 at Jamestown, Virginia. The House of Burgesses became the first legislative body in the New World and ultimately became the foundation for self-government in the American Colonies and, eventually, the United States of America.

Members of the first council were:

  • Samuel Macock,
  • John Pory,
  • Captain Nathaniel Powell,
  • Captain Francis West,
  • Reverend William Wickham,
  • John Pory (designated secretary and speaker),
  • John Twine (clerk of the General Assembly), and
  • Thomas Pierce, Sergeant of Arms.

Plantations and their representatives were:

  • for James City: Ensign William Spense and Captain William Powell,
  • for Charles City: Samuel Sharpe and Samuel Jordan,
  • for the City of Henricus: Thomas Dowse and John Plentine,
  • for Kiccowtan: Captain William Tucker and William Capp,
  • for Martin-Brandon, Captain John Martin's Plantation: Thomas Davis and Robert Stacy,
  • for Smythe's Hundred: Captain Thomas Graves and Walter Shelley,
  • for Martin's Hundred (also known as Wolstenholme): John Boys and John Jackson,
  • for Argal's Gift: Thomas Pawlett and Edward Gourgainy,
  • for Flowerdieu Hundred: Ensign Edmund Rossingham and John Jefferson,
  • for Captain Lawne's Plantation: Captain Christophor Lawne and Ensign Washer,
  • and for Captain Warde's Plantation: Captain John Warde and Lieutenant John Gibbes.

(Source: Charles E. Hatch, Jr., "America's Oldest Legislative Assembly and its Jamestown Statehouses-Appendix II Proceedings of the Virginia Assembly, 1619", National Park Service Interpretive Series History No. 2, Washington: Revised 1956.)

The House of Burgesses made up the other part of the General Assembly. Its members were chosen by all those who could vote in the colony. Each settlement chose two people or burgesses to represent it. The Burgesses met to make laws for the colony and set the direction for its future growth. The idea of electing burgesses was important and new. It gave Virginians a chance to control their own government for the first time. At first the burgesses were elected by all free men in the colony. Women, indentured servants, and Native Americans could not vote. Later the rules for voting changed, making it necessary for men to own at least fifty acres (200,000 m²) of land in order to vote.

In 1698 the seat of the House of Burgesses was moved to Middle Plantation soon renamed Williamsburg. The Burgesses met there, in two consecutive Capitol buildings (the first use of the word in the English Colonies) until December 1779, when they removed to the new capital, Richmond. The present House of Burgesses at Colonial Williamsburg reproduces the earlier of the two lost buildings.

The Virginia House of Burgesses became the Virginia House of Delegates in 1776, which still operates today along with the Virginia Senate to make up the Virginia General Assembly, the legislative branch of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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