The House of Burgesses
The House of Burgesses Definition: The House of Burgesses was where elected representatives of English colonists first assembled to debate and solve common problems and pass laws in the new colony of Virginia. The House of Burgesses was established in 1619, it was split into two chambers in 1650, creating the House of Burgesses and the Governors Council and eventually disbanded in 1776 when it was succeeded by the Virginia House of Delegates. The House of Burgesses was a bicameral legislature that was a model for congress and the first representative governmental body in America.
The Establishment of the House of Burgesses
When the colonization of America began King James I of England issued a charter to the Virginia Company establishing a seven-man council in Virginia to carry out Company directives (refer to the Charter of Virginia). The experiences of the first colonists were extremely difficult, most of the first colonists perished during the period of history called the Starving Time. Sir Thomas Dale was appointed by the Virginia Company of London as the Virginia colony's marshal to take charge of discipline and order and strong disciplinary measures were introduced in the colony about the time John Rolfe arrived in the Virginia colony. News of the harsh military regime and conditions in the Virginia reached England and, not surprisingly, people were not keen on immigrating.
The House of Burgesses - the Great Charter
The Virginia Company, and England, needed some good publicity to encourage private investment and immigration to America. On November 18, 1618 King James I issued the Great Charter of 1618. The Great Charter replaced the military government with a Crown appointed governor and advisory council and authorized the governor to summon a General Assembly to legislate (make laws) as appropriate.
The House of Burgesses - Self-Government in the Virginia Colony
The leadership of the Virginia Company issued a new set of instructions in 1618, based on the provisions of the Great Charter, which was designed to encourage private investment and immigration and make conditions more agreeable to the existing inhabitants. Virginia Company officials adopted English Common Law as the basis of their system in the Virginia colony. The provisions included a system of self government which included the capacity for the colonists to select representatives to govern in a legislative assembly. This arrangement allowed the Virginia Company to retain corporate control over the colony whilst giving the colonists some measure of self government and the ability to pass their own laws. The colony would be represented by the people, its members being directly elected. This assembly of colonists was called the House of Burgesses.
The First Meeting of the House of Burgesses
In the summer of 1619 the new governor of Virginia, Sir George Yeardley who was appointed by the Virginia Company, called for the selection of burgesses, or representatives, from each of the colony's 11 settlements to meet at Jamestown as the first General Assembly of Virginia. The governor appointed six important members of the colony to be his council. The other 15 members were elected by the inhabitants of the Virginia colony. White men over 17 years old, who owned land, were eligible to vote. The first meeting of the House of Burgesses was held in Jamestown, Virginia, on July 30, 1619. The House of Burgesses met in the choir of the church at Jamestown. The assembly members established precedents that were rooted in English parliamentary law.
First House of Burgesses
House of Burgesses - Actions Restricted
The House of Burgesses, which met at first only once a year, could make laws, but its actions were subject to veto by the governor, council, and ultimately by the directors in London. This continued to be the standard until 1624, when Virginia became a royal colony (refer to Colonial Government). James I accused the company with mismanagement and revoked its Proprietary charter. At this time, England took much more control of things in Virginia, restricting the powers of the House of Burgesses. The House of Burgesses continued to meet, but its influence became severely restricted.
House of Burgesses - The Origin of the word 'Burgess'
The House of Burgesses continued to look towards the welfare of the Virginia Colony. The tobacco and other Plantations were flourishing, their profits built on the backs of slaves. The Virginia House of Burgesses often considered petitions from individuals seeking compensation for capturing slaves. Owners of slaves, whose runaways were killed while being pursued or who died in jail, often sought compensation for the lost value.
House of Burgesses - Bacon's Rebellion
On March 3, 1675 Virginia Governor, Sir William Berkeley, appointed the wealthy and influential Nathaniel Bacon as one of several new members of the Virginia Council of State. Tensions increased between the two men due to increases in taxes and accusations of corruption which led to Bacon's Rebellion. Bacon's Rebellion and the Declaration of the People set a precedent for future Americans to obtain equality. The Declaration of the People initiated the principle of the consent of the people. Bacon's Rebellion was the first rebellion in the American Colonies.