The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first legislative body in British North America. Learn about the creation of the House, the House’s growing power, and how the House of Burgesses led to the American Revolution in this lesson.
The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first democratically-elected legislative body in British North America. This group of representatives met from 1619 until 1776. The members, or burgesses, were elected from each county in Virginia with each county sending two burgesses. The House of Burgesses is important because the ideas and leaders from this House helped bring about the American Revolutionary War.
Creation of the Virginia House of Burgesses
The Virginia House of Burgesses was something that developed slowly over time. In 1607, the Virginia Company organized the English settlement in Virginia at Jamestown Colony. For the first decade, the concerns of the colonists centered mainly on daily survival and did not worry about governmental organization. However, by 1619, a military-style government had taken over, and the colonists had established themselves enough to start thinking about politics.
For this reason, the colonists organized the Virginia General Assembly in late 1619. At the first meeting of the assembly, the colonists created the House of Burgesses. It was made up of 22 burgesses from various plantations and villages. King James I of England sent a charter to the colonists that allowed the creation of the Virginia General Assembly as a form of self-government so long as the Virginia Company was able to retain corporate control over the region. The charter also ordered that an English-appointed governor and advisory council would hold control over the General Assembly.
House of Burgesses
Most of the original burgesses were inexperienced with politics, but quickly became aware of their new power. In general, burgesses were members of the gentry class and held larger quantities of land than the non-burgess colonists. Most importantly, the House of Burgesses is notable for being the eventual training ground of America’s Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry.
For the first meeting of the House of Burgesses, the governor, and the advisory council, the members all decided on the basic laws for the Virginia colony. They organized colonists’ land rights; they named the Church of England as an established religion of Virginia; they organized trade relations; they made moral laws about gambling, swearing, and other problems; and they settled disputes among the colonists.
The House of Burgesses’ Growing Power
The House of Burgesses became the main political institution in Virginia when England was suffering from the English Civil Wars, which lasted from 1642 to 1648. The English were too focused on their internal problems to pay any attention to governing the colonists in America. The House of Burgesses saw the political vacuum and took hold of more power in taking care of the colonists’ needs.
By 1652, the House of Burgesses, instead of the king of England, was appointing the governor and his council. This made the elected burgesses the most powerful individuals in the colony. By 1660, the House of Burgesses was powerful enough to declare that it would be ‘the supreme power of the government of this country’ until England had recovered from its messy civil war.
Shortly after this declaration, the English royal line had reestablished itself in England, and the English wanted to make stricter rules for the colonists in order to show that England was at full power once again. The king immediately targeted the power of colonial assemblies, mainly the House of Burgesses. Over the next 25 years, the English government sent governor after governor to Virginia with instructions to limit the power of assemblies and the House of Burgesses.
The selected governors would make many attempts at limiting the powers of the House of Burgesses. This included eliminating annual sessions, vetoing bills on certain subjects, taking away the burgesses’ right to appoint the clerk of the House, and many other actions. The House of Burgesses tried to find ways to keep its power but, for the most part, its political influence declined for the next 30 or so years.
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