Effect of Government on Life in Colonial Williamsburg

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the impact of government on life in Colonial Williamsburg. We will learn about the structure of colonial government in Virginia, and we will highlight key themes and developments.

Colonial Williamsburg

If you ever get the chance to visit Williamsburg, Virginia, it is highly recommended. The historic area has been restored. You can walk down Duke of Gloucester Street and interact with historical reenactors portraying America's colonial period. You can visit the College of William and Mary, or grab a bite to eat at Chowning's Tavern. On a Sunday morning, you can attend a worship service at Bruton Parish Church, where George Washington and Thomas Jefferson once attended.

Williamsburg is a great tourist attraction because of its rich history. But what role did government play in the life of Williamsburg during the colonial era? That is what this lesson is about. Let's dig deeper and find out.

Dale's Code and the House of Burgesses

So if you remember your history, you know that Virginia was the first English colony in the New World. In 1606, King James I set up the Virginia Company, a joint-stock company, whose purpose was to settle the East Coast of North America. Jamestown was founded in 1607 and became the capital of the Virginia Colony until 1699. Initially, the colony was governed by a fairly rigid and authoritarian structure that became known as Dale's Code, after Sir Thomas Dale, the colony's deputy-governor who held power between 1611-1618.

Sir Thomas Dale
dales seasoning

In 1619, a new government system was put into place. This system consisted of the House of Burgesses, an elected legislative assembly. Think of the House of Burgesses as a precursor to our U.S. Congress. Virgina colonists elected men to represent them in the House of Burgesses. The House of Burgesses ruled in conjunction with the royal governor of the colony, who technically had veto power over the assembly. The House of Burgesses helped rule the colony from 1619 until 1776. In 1650, the assembly was restructured and split into two houses, the Governor's Council and the House of Burgesses. The House of Burgesses is important because it was the first representative legislature in North America. As a bicameral legislature from 1650 onward, it also served as a model for our U.S. Congress.

In 1699, the capital of Virgina was moved from Jamestown to Middle Plantation, which was renamed Williamsburg. Thus, between 1699-1776, Williamsburg was the capital of the Virgina Colony. For the first few years in Williamsburg, the House of Burgesses met in Wren Building at the College of William and Mary. In 1705, construction was completed on the colonial Capitol Building, which then served as the meeting place for the House of Burgesses.

The Capitol Building as it would have looked in Colonial times.

Political Life in Williamsburg

Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were all members of the House of Burgesses. In the House of Burgesses, these men and others debated policy and tried to develop approaches for the common good of the colony. The Stamp Act of 1765 was met with resistance by many in the House of Burgesses. The act imposed taxation upon printed material. In his speech against the act, Patrick Henry delivered his famous 'Caesar-Brutus Speech'. This radical speech caused other members of the House of Burgesses to accuse Henry of treason.

Patrick Henry speaks before the House of Burgesses.

In many ways, the citizens of Williamsburg enjoyed relative independence. The House of Burgesses was largely successful in making known the concerns of Virginians. Granted, British taxation was a sore spot for many Virginians, but aside from this, most were content to go about their business uninterrupted. By the mid-18th century, Williamsburg was thriving political and cultural center. The College of William and Mary contributed to an intellectual vibrancy, and the city was home to many taverns where common people discussed the political issues of the day.

As the 18th century progressed, tensions between the American colonists and the British Crown intensified. Colonists and political leaders who favored the more radical approach of protesting and resisting British policies were known as Whigs. Jefferson, Washington, and other 'Founding Fathers' were considered Whigs. Whigs often found themselves in conflict with Virginia's royal governors. This resulted in frequent intense political showdowns.

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