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Virginia House of Burgesses: Purpose, Facts, and Significance

Virginia House of Burgesses: Purpose, Facts, and Significance
The first legislature among the English colonies in America was established in Virginia on July 30, 1619, and was known as the House of Burgesses. Historyplex discusses the purpose, facts, and the significance of the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Mary Anthony
Last Updated: Feb 28, 2018
The House of Burgesses proved to be a historic training ground for America's Founding Fathers like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry.
The word 'Burgesses' originated during the Dark Ages when King Alfred the Great (849 - 899 CE) innovated a national defense measure in England by the organization of 'burghs' meaning "fortress" or "castle" or "fortified towns". The word eventually developed into 'borough', meaning a place in London, later a representative official originating from such a place came to be known as 'Burgess' in the English House of Commons in Parliament.

To strengthen their hold over the American colonies, the Virginia Company―a London company founded by the King, which was responsible for the Jamestown settlement―established a legislative body under the able guidance of Governor George Yeardley in 1619.

The new assembly replaced the martial law with English Common Law, and for the first time, gave people the right to own lands. This legislative governance was the first major step towards democracy during colonial rule. Given below are its salient features.
Purpose, Significance, and Historical Facts
During the early 1600s, Jamestown, a small British colony, was facing hardships due to poor economic conditions and cumbersome military law under Sir Thomas Dale―the appointed marshal of Virginia colony. In order to save its investments and enhance the colony conditions, the Virginia Company of London set up developmental reforms to attract people to the settlement.
On November 18, 1618, King James I released the 'Great Charter of 1618'. The Great Charter suspended the military government and replaced it with a monarch-approved governor and advisory council and authorized the governor to summon a General Assembly to create laws.
The provisions of the charter included an organization of self-government by the colonists along with selected representatives to regulate in the legislative assembly. This agreement gave the colonists the freedom of passing their own set of laws under the corporate control of the Virginia Company. Thus, the assembly of these elected colonists came to be known as the 'House of Burgesses'.
A new governor, Sir George Yeardley, was appointed to represent the Virginia Company in April 1619. He preceded over the selection of 'burgesses' or 'representatives' from each of the 11 settlements. He also appointed six key members as council, and the other 15 members were elected by the people of Virginia. Only white men who owned lands and were above the age of 17 were allowed to vote. 22 representatives from the 11 Jamestown 'boroughs' were elected, and Master John Pory was the first assembly speaker. The first meeting of the House of Burgesses was held in a church choir in Jamestown on July 30, 1619.
The first law passed by the assembly during its first session was the regulation on the tobacco price to three shillings per pound. Unfortunately, the first session was cut short due to an outbreak of malaria. During the next six-day session laws were created on bans against gambling, drunkenness, idleness, and Sabbath observance was made compulsory.
Due to these liberal measures and the policies of the legislative assembly, the popularity of governor Sir George Yeardley rose among the colonists, and he served as Virginia governor for two more terms.
The legislative body continued to make and pass laws under the governor and the approval of the Virginia Company until 1624. King James I officially dissolved the Virginia Company in 1624, making the settlement a royal colony, thus restricting the powers of the House of Burgesses. New governors were appointed and the legislative assembly continued to be an important political center for political debates. Few of the famous members were Peyton Randolph, William Byrd, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Pendleton, and Patrick Henry.
The House of Burgesses became the political epicenter and gained the most powerful position in the colony during the English Civil Wars (1642-1648). Sir William Berkeley, the colonial governor of Virginia, and the General Assembly declared its loyalty towards Charles II after the execution of King Charles I. Despite England's force, the assembly won the authority to select the governor and its councils.
It remained the source of many political rebellions leading up to the War of Independence, the most prominent incidents being the Bacon's Rebellion over increased taxes and corruption, which led to the Declaration of the People. When Patrick Henry was elected as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, he protested against the increased taxes especially the Stamp Act. On May 29, 1765, he delivered the famous 'Caesar-Brutus Speech' "If this be treason, make the most of it!" against this act, which led to the establishment of the Sons of Liberty organization.
In 1769, George Washington protested against the British policy of 'taxation without representation', George Mason's resolutions drafted against the Townshend Acts of 1767 objected to ship colonial political demonstrators to England for trial. On May 10, 1773, the Tea Act was passed which invited the fury of the colonists, and there were major protests.
The house of Burgesses was disbanded by Governor Lord Dunmore, in 1773, for revolutionary activities against the British monarch, he dissolved the legislature completely in 1774. As the House of Burgesses was prohibited from meeting, Patrick Henry delivered his famous speech "Give me liberty or give me death!" on March 23, 1775, at St. John's Church. Virginia was the first colony to teach its deputes to move for independence at the Continental Congress of 1776.
The Virginia Constitution created a new general assembly known as the House of Delegates, this was a new name for the House of Burgesses. Landowners continued to elect their representatives―2 from each county, and 1 from the city. The House of Delegates continued to function for the next 75 years.
The Virginia House of Burgesses became the first general assembly of the commonwealth when the United States declared its independence from England in 1776. One of the first legislation passed by this general assembly was religious equality and the disownment of the Church of England in Virginia. It also served as a model for the U.S. senate and the new democratic system.
Through the establishment of the Virginia House of Burgesses, the Founding Fathers had 157 years to practice democracy and statesmanship to establish a new nation.
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