The London Company created Virginia’s General Assembly in 1619 in an effort to bring increased stability and prosperity to the fledgling colony. On July
30, 1619, Virginia’s new governor, Sir George Yeardley, his six councilors, and twenty elected representatives, commonly known as burgesses, held their
first meeting in a Jamestown church.
Initially, the burgesses held little actual power. Councilors assisted in creating bills, they managed the affairs of the burgesses, and their approval was
necessary for any act to pass into law. Over the course of the seventeenth century, however, the burgesses gradually asserted their legislative
prerogatives and ultimately formed a distinct political body, separate from the council and the governor, which came to be known as the House of
Burgesses. England first recognized the House of Burgesses in 1639, and, by mid-century, the house was regularly disciplining its own members. It had
also established a standing committee to oversee elections, created its own rules of conduct, and gained control of the appointment of its speaker and
clerk, the two most important officers of the house. By 1666, Governor William Berkeley openly recognized the House of Burgesses’s exclusive right to
raise public funds.
Freeholders from various counties, which the General Assembly began to create in the 1630s and 1640s, elected representatives to the House of
Burgesses. By February 1752, there existed forty-six counties and four boroughs one each for the college, Jamestown, Norfolk, and Williamsburg in
colonial Virginia. Between 1752 and 1772, the General Assembly created fifteen additional counties, including Berkeley, Dunmore, and Fincastle.
Virginia’s sixty-one counties and four boroughs elected hundreds of burgesses. As many as 399 different individuals served in the House of Burgesses
between 1750 and 1774. In fact, only five burgesses, all of whom represented the well-established counties in Virginia’s Tidewater region, served the
entire period between 1752 and 1774.
Several factors accounted for turnover in the house. Generally, burgesses died, accepted a position that made them ineligible to serve in the house, lost
at the polls, declined to run, or, in some cases, were expelled. Expulsion from the house was actually quite rare; there are only three known cases during
the period between 1750 and 1774.
Burgesses usually gained the support of their constituency by serving as county clerk, sheriff, coroner, surveyor, tobacco inspector, customs collector, or
naval inspector. Most burgesses approximately three-fourths of the total served as either vestrymen (church officials) or justices of the peace. Although
there is no indication that anything resembling political parties existed in colonial Virginia, burgesses did support various familial and economic interests.
Once elected, burgesses swore an oath of supremacy and allegiance to the British Crown and took a test oath stating they had taken Holy Communion
according to the rites of the Anglican Church. Burgesses then began a legislative process that closely resembled the practices and procedures of the
English House of Commons. The House of Burgesses initiated all legislation, including revenue bills. It drew up resolutions, and it sent petitions to the
For their services, burgesses received travel expenses and ten shillings for each day’s attendance at the general assembly. They were also made exempt
from any arrests or attachments, except treason, during legislative sessions and for ten days before and ten days after each session.
Burgesses tended to come from Virginia’s middle and upper classes. Virtually all of them had at least some connection to the production of tobacco,
although many considered planting a secondary occupation. Burgesses were also lawyers, merchants, and land speculators, and some had interests in
mining and manufacturing. The most powerful burgesses were wealthy and tended to be related to Virginia’s most prominent families. They were of British
origin, and most were Anglicans. They had attained a high level of education and tended to be quite experienced in local politics. They also came from
areas of Virginia that had been settled for at least one generation. By 1752, approximately one-fifth of the members those who were the most powerful
handled most of the business of the house, providing it with a continuity of leadership that began in the 1720s and continued until the Revolution.
On May 26, 1774, partly in response to the Boston Port Act, Governor Dunmore dissolved the General Assembly. The leaders in Williamsburg had
received word on May 17, 1774, that Boston harbor would be closed effective June 1 and had decided that the time for action had arrived. The House of
Burgesses ceased to exist, but its form would rise once again, after the Revolution, as the Virginia legislature.
Michael A. Rembis
See also: Assemblies, Colonial; Bacon’s Rebellion; Politics and Government (Chronology); Politics and Government (Essay);
Virginia; Virginia (Chronology).
Billings, Warren M., John E. Selby, and Thad W. Tate. Colonial Virginia: A History. White Plains, NY: KTO, 1986.
Greene, Jack P. “Foundations of Political Power in the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1720 1776.” William and Mary Quarterly 16 (3rd ser. 1959): 485 92.
Greene, Jack P. The Quest for Power: The Lower Houses of Assembly in the Southern Royal Colonies, 1689 1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
Griffith, Lucille. The Virginia House of Burgesses, 1750 1774. Rev. ed. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1970.
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