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What is the House of Burgesses?

The House of Burgesses was the first legislative assembly of elected representatives in North America, established in Virginia in 1619. It marked the beginnings of self-government, planting the seeds of democracy that would flourish across the continent. How did this early assembly shape modern American politics? Join us as we explore the echoes of the past in today's political landscape.
Matt Brady
Matt Brady

The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first legislative assembly to be set up in the Americas and was an important step in the movement toward independence from the English monarchy. Although the legislative body was still under the rule of the English crown, it established an important precedent: England was to have a limited monarchy over the region, giving Virginians — and the ensuing colonies — the freedom to form their own local laws for governance. This kind of monarchical governance stood in sharp contrast to the Spanish and French monarchies, which wielded total power over their colonies. The legislative body first met in 1619 in the Jamestown Church, and over time, it became an important intellectual meeting place for revolutionary American figures such as George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson.

The House of Burgesses was an important experiment in democracy during colonial times; it would help set up legislative bodies that would continue to be models for democracy after America declared independence from England. It's perhaps odd, then, that England had a significant hand in setting up the legislative assembly. The Virginia Company, a London company established by the King that was responsible for the Jamestown settlement, voted to set up the body under the belief that it would make the settlement more attractive to live in.

The Virginia House of Burgesses first met in the Jamestown colony.
The Virginia House of Burgesses first met in the Jamestown colony.

In setting up the assembly, the Virginia Company hoped to make Jamestown more attractive by giving locals a hand in their own government. Other efforts to make the settlement an attractive place to live included replacing the martial law that had ruled there with the more civil English Common Law and allowing locals to own land for the first time. In compliance with these decisions, Governor George Yeardley traveled from England to Virginia to set up the legislative body in 1619.

The Virginia House of Burgesses became the first general assembly of the commonwealth when the United States declared its independence from England in 1776.
The Virginia House of Burgesses became the first general assembly of the commonwealth when the United States declared its independence from England in 1776.

Under the new assembly, burgesses, or elected officials, were to be elected by the people of Jamestown. Only white male landowners over the age of 17 could vote, however. Initially, 22 burgesses — two representatives for 11 settlements — were elected. The new assembly met on 30 July 1619, and worked to set a minimum sales price for tobacco. The assembly wasn't intended by England to be completely autonomous; that would have subverted the rule of the monarchy, something King James I wasn't willing to do. England would continue to have veto power over the colony through the governor, Virginia Company officials, and ultimately the king himself.

Thomas Jefferson was a member of Virginia's House of Burgesses.
Thomas Jefferson was a member of Virginia's House of Burgesses.

In 1624, King James I dissolved the Virginia Company, and the Virginia settlement officially became a royal colony. This turn of events curtailed some of the legislative freedom of the House of Burgesses. Governors were instituted that had little regard for how the burgesses thought the colony should be governed and taxed. Nevertheless, the assembly continued to thrive as an important group through which political ideas were exchanged and built upon, even if England didn't always heed them. Between that period of time and America's independence, many important American figures were elected to the group and continued to build upon the idea of a democracy independent from the English monarchy.

Colonial Virginia's House of Burgesses was one of the models for the U.S. Senate.
Colonial Virginia's House of Burgesses was one of the models for the U.S. Senate.

The House of Burgesses was an essential part of the legislative framework that would become the U.S. government. In 1776, when America declared independence, it became the first General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia. One of the first major pieces of legislation to come through the General Assembly was the movement for religious equality and the disestablishment of the Church of England in Virginia. Once the nation successfully achieved independence, the established model provided by the General Assembly in Virginia proved an invaluable resource in building the new democratic system.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the House of Burgesses and why is it significant?

George Washington was a member of the House of Burgesses.
George Washington was a member of the House of Burgesses.

The House of Burgesses was the first legislative assembly of elected representatives in North America, established by the Virginia Company in 1619. It marked the beginning of representative government in the future United States. The House played a pivotal role in the development of democratic governance by allowing colonists to have a say in their own affairs, setting a precedent for future legislative bodies, including the U.S. Congress.

How did the House of Burgesses influence the American political system?

The House of Burgesses served as a prototype for the concept of self-government and representative democracy in the American colonies. Its establishment influenced the creation of similar legislative bodies in other colonies and contributed to the development of the United States' political system, which values the representation of the people in making laws and policies. This early legislative body helped lay the groundwork for the democratic principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Who could vote for or become a member of the House of Burgesses?

Initially, voting rights in the House of Burgesses were limited to free adult men who owned a certain amount of property. Women, indentured servants, and enslaved people were excluded from voting. To become a member, one had to be a landowner and be elected by these qualified voters. Over time, the property requirements for voting and holding office in the House of Burgesses changed, reflecting the evolving political landscape of the colonies.

What kind of laws did the House of Burgesses pass?

The House of Burgesses passed laws that dealt with a wide range of issues pertinent to the Virginia colony, including taxation, land ownership, trade, defense, and relations with Native American tribes. It also established local governments and dealt with matters of public morality. The laws passed by the House reflected the needs and concerns of the colony's settlers and were an early form of autonomous governance separate from the British Crown.

How did the House of Burgesses end and what replaced it?

The House of Burgesses effectively ended when Virginia declared independence from Great Britain in 1776. It was replaced by the Virginia House of Delegates, which became part of the new Commonwealth of Virginia's General Assembly. The transition marked Virginia's shift from a British colony to an independent state with its own constitution and government, contributing to the broader establishment of the United States of America.

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Discussion Comments

FitzMaurice

@BigBloom

In spite of the fact that there is some classism still left in New England, it is the general rule of thumb in America that people with skills and assets of leadership will tend to find a way to the top of the ladder. I'm not saying it isn't difficult, but unlike in the old world, you aren't forced to stay in a caste system like you would be in Europe.

BigBloom

@arod2b42

I would argue that classism continued to thrive in New England for a very long time, and is still present to this day to some extent. If you visit New England, you may be surprised at how European it seems. The accents in a given town will vary depending on what social group a person is a part of. The diversity of regional accents and class accents is actually pretty drastic.

arod2b42

The house of "burgesses" literally meant a house ruled by bourgeois middle class people in the new world. This is what America came to be, a place where everyone can be heard and classism is a relic of the past.

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    • The Virginia House of Burgesses first met in the Jamestown colony.
      By: spiritofamerica
      The Virginia House of Burgesses first met in the Jamestown colony.
    • The Virginia House of Burgesses became the first general assembly of the commonwealth when the United States declared its independence from England in 1776.
      By: Mark Rasmussen
      The Virginia House of Burgesses became the first general assembly of the commonwealth when the United States declared its independence from England in 1776.
    • Thomas Jefferson was a member of Virginia's House of Burgesses.
      By: Robert Gil
      Thomas Jefferson was a member of Virginia's House of Burgesses.
    • Colonial Virginia's House of Burgesses was one of the models for the U.S. Senate.
      Colonial Virginia's House of Burgesses was one of the models for the U.S. Senate.
    • George Washington was a member of the House of Burgesses.
      By: nickolae
      George Washington was a member of the House of Burgesses.