Little Bits of History

House of Burgesses

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 30, 2012

House of Burgesses in session

July 30, 1619: The House of Burgesses convenes for the first time. The representative assembly was the first such type meeting in the Americas. Jamestown, Virginia was the site for the first meeting of freemen. The Virginia Company ended its monopoly on land ownership with the thought that colonists would show greater initiative if they could have ownership of the resources. “Burgess” originally meant a “freeman” of a borough or burgh. The Virginia House of Burgesses was the elected lower house of the legislative assembly.

These elected officials were sometimes appointees rather than elected but did officially represent a municipality in the English House of Commons. Once the Virginia Company relinquished control, the settlers could own land outright rather than remaining sharecroppers. Sharecroppers work the land of the owner in return for a portion of the crops produced. In sharecropping, the landlord gets a percentage of the crop, so if the crop is meager, his share is less. There is also a crop fixed rent agreement where the landlord takes a fixed amount and the tenant gets the remainder. In a good year, the tenant receives a higher profit but in a meager year, the tenant may lose most or all of the crops grown.

The Virginia Colony was divided into four large corporations when it was established. The Company officials were governed by English Common Law. The governor had the final voice in legal matters within the colony. The Polish community in Jamestown controlled vital industries (tar and pitch making as well as glass blowing). These were essential commodities. With the establishment of the House of Burgesses, the Poles were excluded. They were outraged and launched the first recorded strike in the New World. The House extended the “rights of Englishmen” to the Poles.

The first session of the House of Burgesses, held on this day, didn’t accomplish much, but it did set a precedent. The colony would have some say in the governance of the land. The 22 members were forced to cut their initial gathering short due to an outbreak of malaria. The legislative body met for 150 years. In 1760, Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee were discussing taxation without representation before the group. Lord Botetourt, then Governor of Virginia, called the group to his house and demanded they dissolve, as their speech was treasonous. The House was reformed in 1770, but the treasonous speeches did not end.

Nothing is so galling to a people, not broken in from the birth, as a paternal or, in other words, a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read and say and eat and drink and wear. – Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay

Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote. – Benjamin Franklin 1759

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it. – Thomas Jefferson

Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of the government. The history of government is a history of resistance. The history of liberty is the history of the limitation of government, not the increase of it. – Woodrow Wilson

Also on this day:

Where Did He Go? – In 1975, Jimmy Hoffa disappears.
Follow the Money – In 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was signed into law.
Exterminated – In 2003, the last old style Volkswagen Beetle rolls off the assembly line.

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