For decades prevailing thought said that 17th Century Virginia was chaotic, had little to build upon, and therefore left a scanty legacy. Historians such as Bernard Bailyn prominently argued that 17th Century Virginia was untamed and chaotic, but in 1985 Jon Kukla challenged that opinion.
Dr. Kukla argued that Pre-Restoration 17th Century Virginia was anything but chaotic and did indeed have order. That order may not be what we think of today, yet the foundations that Virginia settlers laid down in the 17th Century allowed for subsequent generations to build a strong colony. That colony would then go on to profoundly influence America’s founding generation, which in turn built what was then a radically different governmental/political entity that the world had never seen.
The English Civil War undoubtedly colored Sir William Berkeley’s first administration. Berkeley’s first Assembly answered the issue concerning a revived Virginia Company, but once King Charles sent his reply across the Atlantic war had already broken out in England.
Berkeley was a staunch Royalist, but Virginia had many ties to those in Parliament. Some of those ties were economic, and many were religious. Therefore, Berkeley had to deftly navigate tricky waters in such a way that allowed him to proclaim his allegiance, while also appeasing opposition, and opposition that included the powerful William Claiborne.
Though Berkeley had many years in Virginia to look forward to, the seeds for trouble were being sown as soon as that first Assembly meeting. But seeds for a strong Royalist enclave were also being planted deep into Virginia’s heart, and Berkeley was the main planter.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted. The featured image is Charles Landseer’s depiction “The Eve of the Battle of Edgehill, 1642” found at Wikipedia.
Virginia’s history boasts many firsts. One of those firsts was the 1619 meeting of the House of Burgesses. It was a major event in that it was the first time a representative governmental body had met in the New World.
The meeting would set the example for future generations as Virginia and her sister colonies developed a tradition that would over time bring freedom not only to themselves, as at first, but to all, including those who were not represented in that first meeting.
It was my distinct pleasure to interview the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s Nancy Egloff. We discuss how the House of Burgesses formed and evolved in the 17th Century, as well as how the body evolved and influenced later generations. I trust you will find this episode informative and enjoyable.
Billings, Warren. “The General Assembly of 1619: Myths and Realities” in UNBOUND: An Annual Review of Legal History and Rare Books. Journal of the Legal History and Rare Books Special Interest Section of the American Association of Law Libraries, Volume 3, 2010. pp. 39-50.
Virginia became officially became a Royal Colony in 1624. What did that mean? Would the newly formed freedoms be sacrificed on the monarchical altar? What about the rapidly expanding economy? Would that be brought back under governmental control, and suffer under mercantilistic ideas?
Virginia’s second generation had all of these questions and more in mind upon receiving news of the Virginia Company’s demise due to Royal interference. Sure, they suffered, and continued suffering for years to come, but they were figuring out life in the New World. The last thing they wanted was to be plagued by the Old World systems that they had risked their lives to escape.
As a result, 1620s Virginia became an era of change. Englishmen became Virginians, and those Virginians used their fledgling colonial freedoms to their fullest. Their work ensured a permanence hitherto unknown. It also ensured that Virginia was here to stay.
The Virginia Colony made great strides throughout 1619, and arguably the greatest was the formation of representative government, the first such government formed in the New World.
The Company didn’t want to loosen the reigns as freely as they did, but once the steps were taken, the representatives didn’t look back. John Pory guided the proceedings, which lasted 5 days from July 30 to August 4, and set the tone for future Virginian as well as American government into motion.
Because of this precedent, the House of Burgesses is a more than worthy topic of study, especially in that the original House is still with us today as the House of Delegates, the lower body of the Virginia General Assembly, and many great men sharpened their political acumen therein.