Every Thursday, we will use an event that occurred on this date to discuss an important moment in international history. This week: The House of Burgesses Convenes for the First Time (1619)
On July 30, 1619, the first legislative body of elected representatives in North America convened at Jamestown Island, Virginia. In an effort to draw more colonists to Virginia, the Virginia Company established the House of Burgesses to promote a sense of self-governance and allow residents to deliberate issues of local concern. Unlike members of the Virginia Governor's Council (upper house) who were appointed by the Virginia Company, members of the House of Burgesses (lower house) were elected by local residents of the colony. Although the Governor’s Council and the Virginia Company retained veto power over the lower house, each burgess, or local representative, oversaw the affairs and petitions or their respective county.
Although its first session proved unproductive and was cut short by an outbreak of malaria, the House of Burgesses played a critical role in establishing the groundwork for democratic deliberation in Virginia and throughout Colonial North America. While the Virginia Company anticipated that the House of Burgesses would quell local animosities and strengthen allegiances to the crown, the institution fostered sentiments of self-determination (and later separatism) that became the driving forces of the American Revolution. Figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other leaders of the American Revolution developed their political careers while serving in the House of Burgesses. In fact, Henry Clay’s presentation of the Virginia Resolves, a series of grievances against Britain in response to the Stamp Act of 1765, proved to be a seminal moment in the movement for American Independence.
While the House of Burgesses lacked substantial political authority, entrenched class divisions in Virginia planting society, and restricted suffrage to male property-owners, the institution facilitated a shift in the locus of political authority toward the common people of Colonial North America.