Americana Corner: Virginia’s home of citizens
The Colony of Virginia was founded by the Virginia Company in Jamestown in 1607 as a for-profit corporation by their investors. To bring order to the province, Governor George Yeardley instituted a unicameral or unicameral general assembly on July 30, 1619. This group of men consisted of an appointed governor and six councillors, plus 22 men called commoners (a commoner being an honorary citizen of a county in England). Most importantly, the citizens were elected by the eligible voters (free white males) in the colony, making this General Assembly the first elected representative legislature in British America.
In 1642 Governor William Berkley split the legislature into two houses and initiated a bicameral assembly, with elected representatives in the newly created House of Burgesses and appointed councilors meeting separately. It was here that Virginia’s leaders met and debated the big issues of the day. Until the 1760s, this legislature largely determined how the colony should be governed, including taxing its citizens.
This began to change in 1765 when Parliament passed the Stamp Act which imposed a tax on paper products such as newspapers, pamphlets and legal documents. Importantly, it was the first time that Parliament levied a direct tax on the colonies in North America.
This revenue robbing did not go down well with the colonists, who were accustomed to controlling their own internal affairs. The debates and documents that flowed from the House of Burgesses after this act spearheaded our nation’s aspirations for independence from England.
On May 29, 1765, Patrick Henry introduced a series of resolutions known as the Virginia Resolves. These declarations essentially denied Parliament’s right to tax the colonies, since the citizens of America had no representation in England.
By the end of June many newspapers in the colonies had printed these resolutions, which kindled the passions of the people. The “no taxation without representation” sentiment led to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, the first time the colonies united.
Years passed and relations with England continued to deteriorate as the mother country introduced ever more onerous laws. After Parliament passed the Boston Port Act in 1774, which closed Boston Harbor, the House of Burgesses again voiced its opposition in a series of resolutions. The result was that Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the Assembly.
The citizens, however, were not denied their right to assemble, and they immediately assembled at a public house called the Raleigh Tavern. Here they called for a series of five Virginia congresses to go against the governor. At the second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry delivered his most famous speech, ending: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet that it must be bought with chains and slavery?” Forbid it, Almighty God! I do not know what path others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” Alongside Patrick Henry (Burgess of 1765-1776), the men passing through the House of Burgess were a group which had an outsized influence in the founding of our great nation. His alumni list is a who’s who of the Founding Fathers: George Mason (Burgess 1758-1760), who wrote the 1774 Fairfax Resolves, which denied Parliament’s authority over the colonies, and formulated Virginia’s Declaration of Rights in 1776 Precursor to our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson (Burgess 1769-1774), our third President, whose 1774 paper A Summary View of the Rights of British America clearly articulated our grievances against King George, and the author of our landmark 1776 Declaration of Independence.
George Washington (Burgess from 1758 to 1775), who commanded our Continental Army in the American Revolution, was our first President and became the father of our country.
With the advent of the new Virginia Constitution in 1776, the House of Burgesses was finally dissolved. In its place, the new state government created an elected Senate and House of Representatives, which govern the Old Dominion to this day. In 1780, Virginia moved its capital to Richmond, ending Williamsburg’s long run as the center of American politics.
WHY IT MATTERS: So why should the history of the House of Burgess interest us today?
In his day, many of the men who gathered there later gathered on the national stage to lead our country. Throughout the crisis with England she was an eloquent and vocal advocate of American liberty, and many of the ideas contained in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were first discussed and refined in their meetings.
RECOMMENDED READING: Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation, written by Harlow Unger, is an excellent account of this often-overlooked Founding Father. The book is easy to read, told like a story and details Henry’s life.
PLACES TO VISIT:
Arguably the largest living history museum in America is Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia. It includes hundreds of restored or reconstructed 17th-century buildings and artisans who make their wares as their predecessors did centuries ago.
Until next time, may your motto be Ducit Amor Patriae, love of country guides me.
Tom Hand is a former West Point graduate and Army Veteran.
He is a resident of the Ford Field and River Club and writes about American history. Read more at www.americancorner. com.