By Nancy Egloff, Jamestown Settlement historian, and Bly Straube, Jamestown Settlement curator
Although Virginia was colonized in 1607 by the Virginia Company, a private joint-stock organization, by 1618 the colony remained tiny and poor. Thousands had made the long journey to Virginia but only around 400 colonists, mostly men, actually lived there. Colonists experienced a high death rate and lacked political rights and economic opportunities. Virginia Company officials were concerned for Virginia’s future. Hundreds of English subscribers had heavily invested in the colony, but had yet to make a profit. New Company leadership under Sir Edwin Sandys held a radically different vision for the colony, believing that profit should come from producing commodities other than just tobacco. Sandys wanted the Virginia colony to succeed economically, but he believed that this could not happen unless the colonists were given more political and economic freedom and a chance to establish families in their new colony.
In 1619, the Virginia Company of London sent Virginia’s newly appointed governor, Sir George Yeardley, to the colony with a set of new instructions called the “Great Charter.” The document was not a formal charter issued by the king, as earlier charters had been, but was a Company document. The Great Charter set out how land in the colony would be distributed. Its creators hoped to improve management in the colony and give the settlers a greater say in their affairs. Thus the Great Charter called for the gathering of a General Assembly that would serve as an adjunct to the Company’s governing body in London. Sandys wanted to bring “Justice and good government” to Virginia. He did not intend to make the General Assembly equal with the Virginia Company’s authority and had no intention of creating a model of Parliament in miniature in Virginia since the representatives did not sit as a separate body until 1643. The Great Charter suggested practical political and economic remedies to salvage Virginia. An additional component of the Company’s plan was to recruit “younge handsome and honestly educated maydes” who would go to Virginia to become wives for the settlers and “make the men there more settled.”
When Governor Yeardley arrived in Virginia in April 1619 he called for the meeting of the first representative assembly in Virginia to be held in the summer at Jamestown. Along with the governor and his appointed council of state, the colonists “by pluralitie of voices” selected two burgesses from each settlement to represent them and speak for them. The first assembly performed a range of different functions. It passed laws that represented concerns of both the Virginia Company officials and of the local residents, served as a court for hearing petitions from colonists and established the basic procedures of Virginia government.
The first meeting of the “general Assemblie” took place in the timber-framed and stucco-walled church—the only structure on Jamestown Island large enough for the governor, his six councilors, and the 22 burgesses (although, after much discussion by the assembly, two of the burgesses were not allowed to remain). It was a hot summer day and the windows of the church must have been flung wide open, allowing scores of flying insects to annoy the assembly. Further adding to the men’s discomfort would be their clothing. In attempts to impress the governor and to represent their newly-elected statuses as burgesses, the middling planters were probably dressed in their finest clothes. As it turned out, “by reason of extreme heat” Governor Yeardley and many of the men were sickened. One of the burgesses even died on the third day of the meetings. The session came to an end after only six days.
John Pory, Secretary of the colony and the appointed Speaker of the General Assembly, was one of those feeling ill and was not physically “able to passe through long Harangues.” To keep the Assembly from getting bogged down in long debates, he used his knowledge of parliamentary procedures from being a Member of Parliament barely a decade earlier. At the end of the meetings, he drew up a summary report that survives to this day in the National Archives, Kew, England. It is the sole account of the proceedings and despite its shortcomings—it does not record debates, just a rough draft of the passed ordinances—it is the most complete record of any of the General Assemblies that sat between 1619 and the 1680s.
The success of the first General Assembly stems from the extent that free male representatives could speak for the people they represented and could submit some of their own petitions and ideas, subject to the review of the Virginia Company in London. Once the petitions and acts of the first assembly arrived at the offices of the Virginia Company in London, Company officials acted upon the petitions of the colonists without any objections. In April 1620 they wrote that Sir Edwin Sandys: “having pursued the Acts of the general assembly . . . found them in their greatest part to be very well and judicially carried and performed.”
The men who served in the first General Assembly could not know that they were making history in the church in Jamestown in the hot summer of 1619. Ultimately the Great Charter’s reforms initiated in 1618 had an impact far beyond anything the Virginia Company might have imagined. The Great Charter helped establish the first step on a long road towards modern American democracy and self-government.
Pages of “The Proceedings of the First General Assembly, July 30, 1619,” written by John Pory, will be on display at Jamestown Settlement from July 3, 2019, to March 22, 2020, for the first time in America since they were penned at Jamestown in 1619.