The House of Burgesses had its origins in the so-called Great Charter, issued in 1618 by the Virginia Company of London. Drafted by Sir Thomas Smythe and Sir Edwin Sandys, the charter replaced the military government that had been in place since 1609 with a Crown-appointed governor and advisory council (known as the governor’s Council, the Council of State, or as, simply, the Council) and authorized the governor to summon a General Assembly to legislate as appropriate. The arrangement allowed the Virginia Company to retain corporate control over the region while giving the colonists some measure of self-government. In the summer of 1619, Virginia’s newly appointed governor, Sir George Yeardley, called for the selection of two burgesses, or representatives, from each of the colony’s eleven settlements to meet at Jamestown as the first General Assembly of Virginia. Only John Pory, whom Yeardley named speaker of the assembly, had served in Parliament; the others were inexperienced, but had some knowledge of English government and quickly became aware of their own power.
The twenty-two men met from July 30 to August 4 in unicameral session with Yeardley, the six-man governor’s Council, and the secretary and treasurer of the colony. In this session the assembly members established precedents rooted in parliamentary law for ascertaining burgesses’ qualifications; took steps to guarantee that colonists retained the land rights granted to them by the colony’s military governors; named the Church of England as the established church of Virginia; issued regulations and passed laws governing the tobacco trade, Indian trade and relations, and gambling, swearing, and other immoral practices; and settled several disputes between colonists.
In 1624 the Crown revoked the Virginia Company’s charter; Virginia became a royal colony in 1625. The General Assembly continued to convene without any explicit royal authorization—the governor, Council, and burgesses unified by a drive for land and labor. Fearing that a lack of royal sanction might invalidate the laws of the assembly, place land titles under legal question, or even abolish the legislature altogether, the General Assembly sent representatives to England to seek official backing. King Charles I, who had succeeded James I on March 27, 1625, issued no ruling on the matter. The assembly met with its status unclear in 1625 and 1626; in 1627, the assembly received de facto recognition when the king asked the General Assembly to take part in regulating the tobacco trade. Elections were held and the General Assembly began to convene near-annually. When Sir Francis Wyatt returned to Virginia in 1639 for a second term as governor, his commission contained the king’s acknowledgement of the assembly’s right to approve tax increases.
A Separate House
In March 1643 Wyatt’s successor, Governor Sir William Berkeley, authorized the burgesses to sit apart from the Council members as a separate chamber in a bicameral assembly. Berkeley had arrived in Virginia at a time when the king assumed a relatively hands-off posture toward the colony, and the new governor sought to promote a new class of leaders who shared his ambitions for economic diversification and continuation of trade with the Netherlands. A formidable group of councillors led by William Claiborne and Samuel Mathews (1572–1657) appeared to stand in his way, and Berkeley’s reform of the assembly into a bicameral body offered him a chance to ally himself and the colony’s planters against Claiborne and Mathews. At this time the House of Burgesses gave itself parliamentary privileges to protect its integrity and its members. By the middle of the seventeenth century the General Assembly had developed into a colonial counterpart of Parliament.
During the English Civil Wars (1642–1648) the House of Burgesses became Virginia’s principal political institution. After news of King Charles I’s execution by the English Parliament reached the colony in 1649, Berkeley and the General Assembly declared loyalty to the late king’s exiled son, Charles II. In response, the new Commonwealth government of England sent a fleet of ships and an army to blockade the colony, hoping to force Berkeley and the Assembly to surrender to the authority of Parliament. They did, on March 12, 1652, and shortly afterward the House of Burgesses acquired the authority to select the governor and his council—putting the elected burgesses in the most powerful political position in the colony. The status of the House of Burgesses as the dominant chamber in the assembly became very visible in March 1658, when Governor Samuel Mathews (1630–1660) attempted to dissolve the General Assembly before it had finished its business. The House of Burgesses unanimously declared that the governor did not have that authority and prevailed. Symbolically, the House of Burgesses required that the governor and Council must take new oaths of office before the lower House. Early in 1660, after Mathews died and news reached Virginia that Oliver Cromwell had died, members of the House of Burgesses restored Sir William Berkeley to the governorship and declared that until some lawful commission or authority came out of England, the House would be “the supreme power of the government of this country.”
Berkeley called for new elections after Charles II’s restoration to the throne. For reasons that are not known, he did not call for another general election until the spring of 1676. This group of legislators sat for seventeen annual sessions between March 1661 and May 1676, earning them the nickname the Long Assembly (a reference to the Long Parliament of Charles I). During this period the assembly remained the most powerful organ of government in Virginia. It created counties and parishes, which even Parliament did not do in England; it also adopted formal rules of procedure and established the basis of representation as two members from each county and one from the colonial capital, Jamestown. In 1670 the assembly limited the right to vote for burgesses to adult men who owned land.
Increased Royal Regulation
The June 1676 session of the House of Burgesses played a critical part in Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677), an uprising against Berkeley’s response to Indian attacks on the northern and western frontiers. Berkeley had removed Nathaniel Bacon, the rebellion’s leader, from the governor’s Council in May, but after Bacon was elected to the House of Burgesses from Henrico County, the governor reinstated him as councillor. That June, under threat of violence from Bacon, the assembly voted to create a 1,000-man army with Bacon as commanding general. But the assembly passed several other important laws during the session, redressing local grievances about high taxes levied by county governments on small farmers and the poor, reducing the power of county justices of the peace and clerks, and repealing the 1670 law that restricted the vote to landowners. Charles II later ordered all of the session’s laws repealed because he believed (incorrectly) that Bacon had forced them on the assembly.
After Bacon’s Rebellion, the king and his younger brother, James, the Duke of York (later King James II), began to impose stricter regulation on the colonies, specifically targeting the freedom of action exercised by colonial assemblies like the House of Burgesses. Over the next twenty-five years the Crown sent a succession of governors to Virginia with instructions to limit the power of the assemblies. Attempts at limitation included eliminating annual sessions, prohibiting the legislators from hearing appeals decided in the colony’s General Court, and vetoing bills on certain subjects or even sending them to the king for him to veto. The governors seized from the burgesses the right to appoint the clerk of the House, though the body retained the right to appoint their speaker and other officers. As a consequence, the House of Burgesses’ political influence declined. For the next thirty to forty years, Virginia’s royal governors and, to a lesser extent, its councillors, wielded larger shares of political power than the elected burgesses.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the House’s power had lessened considerably, but it remained an essential institution in the colony’s government. The burgesses were the only elected public officials in Virginia at that time, and they vigorously defended both the interests of Virginia’s increasingly wealthy planters, who began to dominate state and local politics, and the institutional interests of the House. For example, members of the governor’s Council may have exercised more influence than the burgesses during the years-long revision of the colonial legal code that was adopted by the assembly in 1705, but that same year the burgesses boldly opposed councillors who had petitioned Queen Anne to remove Governor Francis Nicholson from office. In subsequent decades, the House of Burgesses successfully defended the interests of the tobacco plantation economy its members represented.
In 1713 Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood pushed through the assembly a law to require in every county the construction of a public tobacco warehouse where inspectors would grade all tobacco before export. The objective was to increase the quality of exported tobacco and thereby increase the price that English merchants paid Virginia planters. Spotswood appointed several burgesses to lucrative inspector positions. In the 1715 election the voters in many counties, fearing that the lieutenant governor was gaining too much influence with representatives dependent on him for their income, defeated many of those burgesses. The new members of the House passed a bill to repeal the law, but Spotswood killed the bill. Two years later Virginia planters succeeded in having the king veto the original law. The General Assembly then passed a law requiring that if the governor or lieutenant governor appointed any burgess to the office of sheriff or any other office of profit, the burgess had to resign from the House. Later, in 1730, when Lieutenant Governor William Gooch proposed a new tobacco inspection law, the assembly enacted it and retained the provisions that prevented the executive from appointing burgesses in an attempt to increase his influence in the assembly.
Well before the beginning of the eighteenth century the House of Burgesses had developed a set of formal parliamentary procedures and operated with standing committees that assisted, as in the House of Commons, with the flow of business. Veteran members of the House usually chaired the most important of the standing committees, providing leadership and experience for committee work and for legislative deliberations. The body already held strong fiscal control over the colony. It had been setting the tax rate since the seventeenth century, and it authorized the payment of all claims against Virginia in the eighteenth. The House’s members came by custom in the 1730s and 1740s to have the sole power of introducing new bills in the legislature. During the third quarter of the century, for reasons that are not entirely clear, fewer burgesses chose not to run for reelection or were defeated when they did. The longer services of those members augmented the institutional memory of the House and provided its members with the ability to challenge royal governors and British policies in the interest of protecting the power of their governmental institutions and their economic and cultural values.
The office of speaker became a highly sought-after post of honor and influence. In 1691 the assembly created an office of treasurer of the colony to collect and disburse the tax money raised under its authority. At nearly every session of the assembly a law was passed to renew the office and designate the speaker of the House as treasurer, which allowed him to retain a stated portion of the money that passed through the treasurer’s office to compensate the speaker for his time and labor.
From 1738 to 1766, John Robinson Jr. held the position of speaker and treasurer. Robinson’s knowledge of parliamentary procedure and long tenure enabled him, arguably, to wield more political power than any other man of his time. Imperial authorities and a group of burgesses that included Richard Henry Lee felt that allowing one person to occupy these two positions consolidated too much power in a single man’s hands, but were unable to curtail his influence. It was not until after Robinson died that his accounts as treasurer were discovered to be in arrears of more than £100,000—he had been recycling currency earmarked for destruction by lending it to his friends and supporters, many of whom were burgesses themselves. The offices were finally separated in 1766.
Prologue to Revolution
In the mid-eighteenth century the House of Burgesses reemerged as the most influential branch of the colony’s government. In 1754 the burgesses sent an agent to London to challenge Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie‘s imposition of a pistole fee for signing land grants; in 1759 they sent an agent to London again, this time to defend the legality of the Two Penny Acts of 1755 and 1758 before the Privy Council. In both cases, their agents enjoyed enough success to result in a compromise that reflected the House’s agenda. Thereafter, the House of Burgesses paid the salary and expenses of an agent in London, just as the governor’s Council did.
Starting in 1764, when Parliament’s House of Commons revealed its plan to impose a stamp tax on the colonists to raise money to pay off the debt accumulated during the war with France, members of the House of Burgesses took the lead in defending the rights of the colonists, who were not represented in Parliament. The burgesses adopted resolutions against the Stamp Act and protested the unprecedented taxes by petitioning both houses of Parliament and the king, becoming the defenders of the people of Virginia in the process. The Stamp Act Resolves that burgess Patrick Henry introduced in 1765 and the speech he made criticizing King George III for signing the Stamp Act verged on treason, but set the terms of colonial resistance to British policies for the next decade.
In May 1774, after Parliament closed Boston Harbor as punishment for the Boston Tea Party and the House of Burgesses adopted resolutions in support of the Boston colonists, Virginia’s royal governor, John Murray, earl of Dunmore, dissolved the assembly. The burgesses then reassembled on their own and issued the calls for the first of five Virginia Conventions. These conventions were essentially meetings of the House of Burgesses without the governor and Council. They paved the way for the First Continental Congress and, more broadly, for the revolution in Virginia, creating an army and, in June 1776, adopting a new constitution for the independent Commonwealth of Virginia.
In May 1776 the House of Burgesses ceased to meet, and the Virginia Constitution of 1776 created a new General Assembly composed of an elected Senate and an elected House of Delegates. The House of Delegates was the House of Burgesses by another name. Landowners continued to elect representatives to the House of Delegates, two from each county and one from each city. Because the state constitution required that all bills originate in the House (permitting the Senate only to propose amendments), the lion’s share of political power in Virginia was lodged for the next seventy-five years in the House of Delegates.
The House of Burgesses was a superior school for statesmen, not only for those serving Virginia, but also for those serving the new United States. Peyton Randolph, the House of Burgesses’s last speaker, was the first president of the Continental Congress, and many of the Virginia representatives to Congress had experience as burgesses. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and other great revolutionary leaders of Virginia served first in the House of Burgesses, where they learned the skills that enabled them to lead in founding the new nation.