Back To CourseAP US History: Homework Help Resource
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The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first democratically-elected legislative body in British North America. This group of representatives met from 1619 until 1776. The members, or burgesses, were elected from each county in Virginia with each county sending two burgesses. The House of Burgesses is important because the ideas and leaders from this House helped bring about the American Revolutionary War.
The Virginia House of Burgesses was something that developed slowly over time. In 1607, the Virginia Company organized the English settlement in Virginia at Jamestown Colony. For the first decade, the concerns of the colonists centered mainly on daily survival and did not worry about governmental organization. However, by 1619, a military-style government had taken over, and the colonists had established themselves enough to start thinking about politics.
For this reason, the colonists organized the Virginia General Assembly in late 1619. At the first meeting of the assembly, the colonists created the House of Burgesses. It was made up of 22 burgesses from various plantations and villages. King James I of England sent a charter to the colonists that allowed the creation of the Virginia General Assembly as a form of self-government so long as the Virginia Company was able to retain corporate control over the region. The charter also ordered that an English-appointed governor and advisory council would hold control over the General Assembly.
Most of the original burgesses were inexperienced with politics, but quickly became aware of their new power. In general, burgesses were members of the gentry class and held larger quantities of land than the non-burgess colonists. Most importantly, the House of Burgesses is notable for being the eventual training ground of America's Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry.
For the first meeting of the House of Burgesses, the governor, and the advisory council, the members all decided on the basic laws for the Virginia colony. They organized colonists' land rights; they named the Church of England as an established religion of Virginia; they organized trade relations; they made moral laws about gambling, swearing, and other problems; and they settled disputes among the colonists.
The House of Burgesses became the main political institution in Virginia when England was suffering from the English Civil Wars, which lasted from 1642 to 1648. The English were too focused on their internal problems to pay any attention to governing the colonists in America. The House of Burgesses saw the political vacuum and took hold of more power in taking care of the colonists' needs.
By 1652, the House of Burgesses, instead of the king of England, was appointing the governor and his council. This made the elected burgesses the most powerful individuals in the colony. By 1660, the House of Burgesses was powerful enough to declare that it would be 'the supreme power of the government of this country' until England had recovered from its messy civil war.
Shortly after this declaration, the English royal line had reestablished itself in England, and the English wanted to make stricter rules for the colonists in order to show that England was at full power once again. The king immediately targeted the power of colonial assemblies, mainly the House of Burgesses. Over the next 25 years, the English government sent governor after governor to Virginia with instructions to limit the power of assemblies and the House of Burgesses.
The selected governors would make many attempts at limiting the powers of the House of Burgesses. This included eliminating annual sessions, vetoing bills on certain subjects, taking away the burgesses' right to appoint the clerk of the House, and many other actions. The House of Burgesses tried to find ways to keep its power but, for the most part, its political influence declined for the next 30 or so years.
By the beginning of the 18th century, while the House of Burgesses' power had visibly lessened, it was still an important institution in the colony's government. The burgesses were very protective of the rights of the wealthy planters, which included, after all, themselves. They also raised concerns about any other Virginia-specific issues. The House of Burgesses also set the tax rates for the colony, which gave it strong economic control. When the House took over the tax rates and, thus, took control of the colony's economy, it helped the House once again become an influential branch of the colony's government.
From the mid-18th century until the American Revolution, the House of Burgesses was a focal point in the colonists' struggles with the English government. A good example of the struggles between the House and the British government occurred in 1760, when the House of Burgesses declared that it was the only body that could tax the colony. The governor, who was appointed by the English, quickly dissolved the House for awhile.
In 1764, English Parliament revealed its plans to make a stamp tax on the colonists in order to pay off war debts. The House of Burgesses loudly opposed it and led the defense of the colonists' rights by claiming that the colonists were not properly represented in Parliament. The House also sent petitions to both Parliament and the English king, and in the process became known as the defenders of the Virginia people.
In 1774, Parliament closed Boston Harbor as punishment for the Boston Tea Party. The House of Burgesses reacted by supporting the Boston colonists, and Virginia's governor responded to the House by dissolving the assembly once again. The burgesses reassembled on their own and made five Virginia Conventions. These conventions were basically meetings of the House of Burgesses without the governor or the council being present.
The conventions allowed the burgesses to organize their ideas about what they wanted for America. By 1776, the burgesses led the call for revolution in Virginia, created an army, and adopted a new constitution for the independent Commonwealth of Virginia. They also formally dissolved the House of Burgesses. This was because the burgesses had completely reorganized their government. With the Virginia Constitution of 1776, they created a new General Assembly. The General Assembly was made up of an elected Senate and an elected House of Delegates. The House of Delegates was the new name for what was essentially the House of Burgesses. Both the Senate and the House were elected by voters.
The House of Burgesses was important because it was the first legislative and democratic government in America. The House of Burgesses played a very important role in the American Revolutionary War, as well as in the creation of an organized, democratic government for the newly created America. Once America became its own nation, the House of Burgesses gracefully faded into the folds of the new political system.
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Back To CourseAP US History: Homework Help Resource
29 chapters | 332 lessons