Jamestown. October 16, 1629. The General Assembly of the Colony of Virginia convened consisting of 46 elected representatives from 24 designated sites along with Governor John Pott and his Councillors. It had been ten years since the House of Burgesses with its twenty-two representatives from 11 localities had met under the leadership of the newly appointed governor, Sir George Yeardley, becoming the first representative legislative assembly in the Americas.1 In the intervening years, the Colony had pulled through the devastation of the Powhatan Uprising and the dissolution of its founding commercial Virginia Company of London. The Colony had not only survived, but prospered. In 2019, the Commonwealth of Virginia celebrated the 400th anniversary of the beginning of representative government in America. Did the Burgesses in 1629 happen to pause to acknowledge its tenth anniversary?
The burgesses that year would have been aware that their situation was tenuous. The election of representatives began while the Colony was under the private chartered Virginia Company of London. After the Company was dissolved and Virginia was designated a Royal Colony in 1624, the House of Burgesses was neither sanctioned nor disallowed by King Charles I. Virginians, though, had taken to the idea of elected representation, and, despite the uncertainty, the General Assembly still met. 2 Continuation of a representative assembly was not assured. Ironically, while the Virginia representatives met in 1629, Charles I, weary of not getting the monies and approvals he wanted, dissolved England’s Parliament. He did not call it back into session until 1640, a time in English history known as “The Eleven Year Tyranny.” 3 The citizens in England were denied their representative voice.
The Vision of a Commonwealth
The commission that was carried to the Colony in 1619 by Governor Yeardley changed the course of Virginia’s government and ultimately that of the United States of America. It reflected an important victory in the English philosophical debate about how nations and colonies should be governed. In the 15th and 16th century, some judicial philosophers put forward the idealized concept of a nation as a “common-weal” where a harmonious hierarchical balance would be maintained between the monarchy, the government, and the people in such a way that all would share in a common well-being. To achieve this would require an enlightened monarch, a responsive and responsible government, and a represented and diligent populace, all of them living in accordance with the righteous principles and laws of the Church. 4
Although the basic components of a commonwealth existed in 17th century England (King, Parliament, Church, and the People), they were not harmoniously united, and the initial governments of Jamestown were chaotic and authoritarian. The harsh implementation of the Company’s initial “Lawes Divine, Moral, and Martial” by its governors had not fostered shared prosperity or unity in Virginia. With the Colony still struggling, the Virginia Company changed leadership, and Sir Edwin Sandys, a proponent of the commonwealth concept, was elected a director.
Sir Edwin Sandys, A Founding Father
Sandys and his supporters desired for Virginia to become a New World commonwealth that would benefit all those living there and involve them in their own public affairs. He believed in strengthening the economy by diversification of crops and production, increasing emigration through land incentives, allowing free trade, providing representation in government, and converting the native peoples to Anglican Protestantism after which they would happily assume their place in this harmonious, supportive hierarchy. He saw Virginia as the opportunity to create “a perfected English society.” However, Virginia was not a blank slate. The Powhatan Indians were not interested in becoming loyal subjects of James I. Colonists already had a taste of wealth through tobacco and did not want to diversify. The offer of land ownership and a voice in one’s governance, though, were attractive incentives to increase emigration. 5
Sir Edwin Sandys also had his difficulties with the Crown. Considered the most influential member of the House of Commons at the time, he was in frequent conflict with King James I. In 1621, he was even placed under house arrest related to his contrary opinion on the “Spanish marriage” being considered for Prince Charles. Sandys never proposed a commonwealth without a monarch, but he supported a powerful Parliament. Perceiving his democratic tendencies, Capt. John Bargrave attacked the Virginia commonwealth project saying, “the mouth of equal liberty must be stopped.” 6
Today, while having all the rights and responsibilities of a state, Virginia is still officially named The Commonwealth of Virginia. The noted Jamestown historian, Dr. James Horn, summarized Sandys’s contribution as an unrecognized early Founding Father thus: 7
Sandys’s dream of creating a commonwealth in the interests of settlers and Indians proved short-lived. But the twin-pillars of democracy–the rule of law and representative government–survived and flourished. It was his greatest legacy to America.
Challenges of Creating a General Assembly
While the concept of an elected governmental body was exciting to the early colonists, there were challenges in its implementation. It was easily decided that the Assembly would meet in the choir seats of the largest and finest building in Jamestown, its new church built in 1617, but how to conduct the meeting was a greater challenge. Only John Pory, the Secretary of the Colony, had ever had legislative experience as a member of the House of Commons in Parliament, so he was authorized as the Speaker of the House. Still, it was uncertain what a colonial legislative body of a private company could or should do. Was it to be more of an advisory appendage to handle local matters for the Company or could it actually formulate laws for the Colony and become a type of “Little Parliament?” 8
Until 1643, the General Assembly was a unicameral body intended to convene annually with the Governor, his Councillors, and the elected Burgesses all meeting and working together. According to the instructions, Sir George Yeardley was to establish ” a laudable form of Magistracy and just Laws…for the happy guiding and governing of the people.” With little direction from England, no experience in drafting laws, and a whole new set of circumstances to regulate, Virginians began to craft their own unique government, setting themselves on a twisting and rocky path that would ultimately lead to independence.9
17th Century Voting and Representation
Among those newly elected Burgesses in 1629 was Adam Thorowgood of Elizabeth City, whose life regular readers of this blog know I am tracking through the 17th Century. It is rather remarkable that he was elected at that point, for it was only four years since he had finished his indentureship to Edward Waters, and Elizabeth City was a large and important settlement. However, much had transpired in those years to boost his prominence. Likely using the £100 inheritance from his father, Adam purchased 150 acres and was recognized as a “gentleman of Kikotan. ” He then returned to England and married into the influential and wealthy merchant family of the Osbournes & Offleys. Around that time, his older brother, John Thorowgood, was appointed a Gentleman of the Bed Chamber (like Ladies in Waiting for a Queen) for King Charles and was anticipating knighthood at the King’s official coronation in 1630. Although only 24 years old when he returned to Virginia in 1628, Adam Thorowgood was a young man of which to take note. So, who would have been able to vote to elect him a Burgess? 10
As a tour guide for Jamestown and Williamsburg, I frequently hear interpreters talk about how many people were not represented in government in those days. However, a person from the 17th or 18th century would likely have refuted that. Today we equate representation with being able to cast a vote. It was construed differently at that time.
In the beginning, to vote for a Burgess one had only to be a free man of age (21) who gave allegiance to England. The first Africans were brought to Virginia a month after the Burgesses met, but their arrival was unanticipated. (future posts) The restriction on being free was not originally intended to exclude slaves, but to keep bound indentured servants from voting who might be unduly pressured by their temporary “owners.” Masters were viewed as representing their bound and, later, enslaved servants.11
Most adult women were considered under the concept of “feme covert.” If unmarried and living at home, she would be represented by her father. If married, her husband would represent her and their children. Only widowed or independent single women (“feme sole”) had no “representation” in this system. With men outnumbering women in the Colony for its first century, women were usually not single for long. Adam Thorowgood’s wife, Sarah, though, became a formidable widow even without the vote. 12
Initially, it was easier for a man to qualify to vote in Virginia than in England. Just as what was happening in England influenced Virginia, what Virginia did influenced the direction of events in England. There were efforts in the House of Commons during this same period to broaden England’s parliamentary franchise, but they were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, with time, more restrictions were added to Virginia’s voting requirements. In 1670, around the period the Assembly was passing race-related laws, they added the requirement that one had to to own land or property to vote.13
Out of concern over the increasing number of free blacks within the Colony and fear they might join in a slave insurrection, the Assembly passed a law in 1723 “That no free negro, mulatto, or Indian whatsoever, hereafter have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever.” After Bacon’s rebellion in 1676, the King began to exert more control over Virginia, and the elected legislature also began to lose some of its freedoms and independence.14
The Legislative Agendas 1629-1632
During the years Adam Thorowgood participated as a Burgess, the Assembly dealt with some significant changes as well as rather provincial matters. In his first session in 1629, the Burgesses considered the usual issues of planting corn, going against the Indians, planting tobacco, penalties for not going to church, paying for tithables, and the refortification of Point Comfort.15
Discussions might have been a bit more interesting in the following session on March 24, 1629/30 (using the Julian calendar). Sir John Harvey had just been appointed governor to replace John Pott, who was accused of stealing cattle (he was convicted in July). The Assembly passed Acts prohibiting price gouging and defrauding by sea merchants and colonists, ordering farmers to grow at least 2 acres of corn per worker, forbidding the killing of female cows until they were post-breeding, and, as colonists had renewed attacks on the Indians, allowing “noe peace bee concluded with them.” Act 5, though, was more unusual. After asking each household to preserve their wood ashes for the making of potash, the following was requested for the possible making of saltpeeter: 16
…every master of a family shall have a special care…to preserve and keepe all their urine which shall be made…they shall receave directions the benefit whereof…shall redounde to those that shall make the experiment…
How the urine was to be collected, stored, and used was not specified. Nor was any means of enforcement explained. Indeed, there was much the Burgesses still needed to learn about the fine art of legislation.
In contrast, the sessions in 1631-32 were groundbreaking as the Assembly decided to review, consolidate, revise, void when needed, and reform the body of laws that had accumulated over the years. This was their first attempt to develop and publish a consistent Code of Law for the Colony. The first review appeared to have taken place by only a partial Assembly as it included only 20 Burgesses representing 13 combined districts and started meeting on February 21, 1631/32. They produced a document of 68 acts which included 15 related to Church matters. Not surprisingly, the “urine collection” regulation did not survive the review. 17
While Adam Thorowgood was not in the February meetings, he was present a few months later on September 4, 1632 when the entire group of 37 Burgesses from all 25 sites met to consider the work that had been done. With some changes to the earlier revision for clarity and convenience, the Assembly then issued 61 Acts. The Preamble stated: 18
we doe therefore herby ordeyne and establish that these acts and orders… be published in this colony and to be accounted and adjudged in force. And all other acts and orders of any assembly heretofore holden to be voyd and of none effect.
While there would be many more revisions in the years to come, that year Virginians confidently took ownership of their legislative process.
Coming Post: Return to England
- Hening, William Waller, The Statutes at Large Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619, vol. I (New York: R.W. & G. Bartow, 1823), 132-33. Accessed online at books. google on May 15, 2020. McIlwaine, H.R. and J.P. Kennedy, eds., Journal of the House of Burgesses of Virginia I: 1619-1658-59. (Virginia, General Assembly, 1915), 2-3; 52 137. Accessed online at books.google on May 15, 2020. ↩
- Billings, Warren M., The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Documentary History of Virginia, 1607-1700 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 52. ↩
- Crofton, Ian, The Kings and Queens of England (London: Quercus, 2006), 162-163. ↩
- Horn, James, 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 121-123. ↩
- Ibid., 127-131, 153. Rabb, Theodore K. “Sir Edwin Sandys (1561–1629).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 18 May. 2020. ↩
- Horn, 8. ↩
- Ibid., 217. ↩
- Ibid., 68-69. Billings, Warren M., A Little Parliament: The Virginia General Assembly in the Seventeenth Century (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 2004), xvi-xix, 160. ↩
- Billings, Little Parliament, 16-17. Horn, 60, 67-68, 81, 160. ↩
- McCartney, Martha W., Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers 1607-1635 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 2007), 168. Matthew, H. C. G., and Brian Harrison ed., “Thoroughgood, John” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 54 (London: Oxford University Press, 2004), 660-662. ↩
- Billings, Little Parliament, 18, 55, 160. ↩
- Billings, Old Dominion, 360-361. Parramore, Thomas C., Peter C. Stewart, and Tommy L. Bogger, Norfolk: The First Four Centuries (Charlottesville: Univeristy Press of Virginia, 1994), 26-28, 39-42. ↩
- Horn, 208. Bushman, Richard, “English Franchise Reform in the Seventeenth Century,” The Journal of British Studies, III (November 1963), 36-38. Accessed online on May 10, 2020 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/175047.pdf. Requirements for Voting in Virginia, 1670-1850 from Virginia Places. Accessed online May 2, 2020 at http://www.virginiaplaces.org/government/voteproperty.html ↩
- Wolfe, Brendan. “Free Blacks in Colonial Virginia.” Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 13 May. 2019. Web. 19 May. 2020. ↩
- Hening, 145. ↩
- Ibid., 149-152 ↩
- Ibid., 153. ↩
- Ibid., 178-180. Billings, Little Parliament, 193-194. ↩