What kind of government existed at Jamestown?

In the year 1619, a very special event took place in the church at Jamestown – the first representative assembly in America met to write some of the colony’s laws. In twelve relatively short years, government at Jamestown had evolved from a small council of seven men to this General Assembly milestone. What happened during these twelve years which accounts for this progression of government?

Thomas West, Third Baron de la Warr

Thomas West, Third Baron de la Warr

Before the voyagers set sail from England, under a charter granted by King James I in April 1606, a royal council made up of thirteen members appointed by the king, called the “Councell of Virginia” was established to govern the enterprise. Government in the colony was to be undertaken by a local council which was to carry out the instructions of the Virginia Council in London. Everyone would work for the Virginia Company. In return, the Company would provide all the supplies for the colony. This arrangement was a pragmatic way of uniting national and private interests in creating a common approach to the founding of the colony.

Almost from the beginning of the voyage, there were difficulties. Though Captain Christopher Newport had been given “sole charge and command” of all the persons aboard the three ships which set sail from England in December 1606, the Virginia Council had sealed the names of the colony’s leaders in a box and expressly commanded that it was not to be opened until they reached their destination. This created a measure of uncertainty in the men’s minds about who would be in charge in Virginia. Even after the leaders were determined shortly after sighting landfall in April 1607, it did not take long after Captain Newport’s departure from the settlement in June for quarreling among the men to resume and a crisis of leadership to set in. This continued off and on until September 1608, when Captain John Smith, as the only surviving member of the original council who had not yet served, assumed the presidency and, through his strong leadership, was credited with saving the colony as it was on the brink of collapse.

It became clear in London that there were problems with the government in Jamestown and that a change was in order. A new charter was created in May 1609. This charter included a new corporation which was headed by a treasurer, as the principal officer, and a governing council that served as the permanent administrative body of the Company and was directly answerable to it by way of weekly and quarterly meetings. A new Virginia Council was also created, made up of men nominated by the Company rather than by the King and his ministers. In addition, a new position of “governour” was given extensive powers including the right to enforce martial law, if necessary.

The first man to hold this position was Sir Thomas West, Lord de la Warr, with Sir Thomas Gates as lieutenant governor. It was left to Gates to establish a strict code of laws upon his arrival in May 1610, which were later expanded under Lord de la Warr. These were derived from the instructions delivered to Lord de la Warr by the Virginia Council shortly before he left England in 1610. These became known as “Laws Divine, Morall and Martiall.” They included duties and obligations of settlers as well as penalties for transgressions. Among other things, officers were required to ensure that all those under their command attended divine service twice daily, in the morning and evening, and to punish anyone who blasphemed “God’s holy name” or challenged the authority of a preacher or minister. There was to be one church, one God, and one law. No dissension would be tolerated. Sir Thomas Dale built upon this strict enforcement of law with the official establishment of martial law when he arrived in March 1611.

First Virginia Assembly, Sidney King

First Virginia Assembly, Sidney King

The next big reform in governance occurred with “the greate Charter”, a set of instructions issued by the Virginia Company in 1618, which contained provisions designed to encourage private investment and immigration. Because the Company was concerned that the colony’s severe martial code would discourage this from occurring, it instructed the governor-elect, Sir George Yeardley, to introduce “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people.” Two new councils were created: a council of state, whose members were selected by the Virginia Company of London, to assist the governor in his duties, and a “generall Assemblie” that included the Council and two “Burgesses” from every town, hundred, and particular plantation, “Chosen by the [free] inhabitants.” This new political structure reduced the power of the governor, who previously had been appointed for life and who had the option to appoint or replace members of the council at will. Under the new rules, Council decisions were made by majority vote, with the governor only casting the deciding vote in the case of a tie. The General Assembly was to be the voice of the people of Virginia, providing a check on the power of the governor and council. Members of Virginia’s first legislative assembly gathered at Jamestown’s church on July 30, 1619. Thus began the first representative government in the European colonies.

Before adjourning on August 4, the assembly passed laws against gambling, drunkenness, idleness, “excess in apparel”, theft and murder. They regulated trade with the Indians and limited the number of Indians allowed to work and live within the settlements. Other laws were adopted requiring that households keep a year’s supply of corn on hand and plant vineyards and mulberry trees to raise silkworms. Regulations were established for preparing tobacco for market. Limits on how far settlers could venture from home (not beFirst Virginia Assembly, Sidney King 14 yond 20 miles) and how long they could undertake a voyage without permission (none longer than seven days) were also established. A judicial system similar to English law replaced the harsh administration of martial law. The close link between church and state continued, including a series of requirements for ministers.

Even though this assembly in 1619 was a turning point in the governing structure of Jamestown, it did not end the economic difficulties brought on by war with the Indians, disputes among factions and bad investments. In 1624, King James I dissolved the Virginia Company’s charter and, seventeen years after the arrival at Jamestown, established royal control of the colony. However, the first meeting of the General Assembly in 1619 set a pattern for political life in Virginia that endured after 1624 with the abolishment of the Company. The idea of a system of checks and balances was later embodied in the Unites States Constitution, and the present Virginia General Assembly continues the tradition established by the first twenty Virginia burgesses that hot summer day in 1619.