Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the House of Burgesses – July 30, 2629

Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the House of Burgesses – July 30, 1619

Hank Bitten, Executive Director, New Jersey Council for the Social Studies

The teaching of colonial American history and civics in the first months of the 2018-19 school year offer a unique opportunity to celebrate the foundations of American democracy! Most lessons on the colonial period are in the beginning of the academic year and the 399th year is the best time to teach the historical significance of the 400th anniversary! It’s a milestone event

During “the starving time” of 1618-19, Jamestown was under martial law. In April 1619, the new governor, George Yeardley arrived and announced that the Virginia Company voted to establish a legislative assembly in the colony. The first assembly met on July 30 in the pews reserved for the church choir in the church at Jamestown and in 1700 was moved to Williamsburg.

The first law passed in the House of Burgesses was to meet in the local church: “The most convenient place we could finde to sitt in was the Quire of the Churche Where Sir George Yeardley, the Governor, being sett downe in his accustomed place, those of the Counsel of Estate sate nexte him on both hands excepte onely the Secretary then appointed Speaker, who sate right before him, John Twine, clerke of the General assembly, being placed nexte the Speaker, and Thomas Pierse, the Sergeant, standing at the barre, to be ready for any service the Assembly shoulde comaund him. But forasmuche as men’s affaires doe little prosper where God’s service is neglected, all the Burgesses tooke their places in the Quire till a prayer was said by Mr. Bucke, the Minister, that it would please God to guide and sanctifie all our proceedings to his owne glory and the good of this Plantation. Prayer being ended, to the intente that as we had begun at God Almighty, so we might proceed with awful and due respecte towards the Lieutenant, our most gratious and dread Soveraigne, all the Burgessess were intreatted to retyre themselves into the body of the Churche, which being done, before they were fully admitted, they were called in order and by name, and so every man (none staggering at it) tooke the oathe of Supremacy, and entred the Assembly.”

(An order concluded by the General assembly concerning Captaine Warde, July 30th, 1619, at the opening of the said Assembly.)

Jamestown Church

One important reason for the success of the American Revolution is with the traditions of these small colonial legislative bodies dedicated to protecting the rights of Englishmen, determining taxes, and making laws on local matters. King James 1 attempted to dissolve the assembly but the Virginians persevered. The colonies of Spain and France were ruled by divine right monarchs and the lessons of history are harsh with popular revolutions in France (1789), Russia, 1917), and China (1949) giving rise to rulers (i.e. Napoleon, Lenin, Mao) more autocratic than the ones the people rebelled against.

The first 22 representatives or burgesses represented 11 plantations in an assembly with Governor Yeardley and the Virginia Council. Representatives had to be male, white, and property owners. One of their first actions was on a fair price for the tobacco trade.

“This being dispatched we fell once more debating of suche instructions given by the Counsell in England to several Governors as might be converted into lawes, the last whereof was the Establishment of the price of Tobacco, namely, of the best at 3d and the second at 18d the pounde. At the reading of this the Assembly thought good to send for Mr. Abraham Persey, the Cape marchant, to publishe this instruction to him, and to demaunde of him if he knewe of any impediment why it might not be admitted of? His answere was that he had not as yet received any suche order from the Adventurers of the in England. And notwithstanding he sawe the authority was good, yet he was unwilling to yield, till suche time as the Governor and Assembly had layd their commandment upon him, out of the authority of the foresaid Instructions as followeth:

By the General Assembly. “We will and require you, Mr. Abraham Persey, Cape Marchant, from this daye forwarde to take notice, that, according to an article in the Instructions confirmed by the Treasurer, Counsell and Company in Englande at a general quarter courte, both by voices and under their hands and the Comon seall, and given to Sir George Yeardley, knight, this present governour, Decemb. 3, 1618, that you are bounde to accepte of the Tobacco of the Colony, either for commodities or upon billes, at three shillings the beste and the second sorte at 18d the punde, and this shalbe your sufficient dischardge. James citty out of the said General Assembly, July 31, 1619.” http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1296&context=masters

House of Burgesses Assembly

Teaching about the 400th anniversary is an opportunity to remember the contributions of Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph, Peyton Randolph, George Mason, William Byrd, George Washington, John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson and others in the House of Burgesses. There are excellent resources on the web for developing lesson activities on the House of Burgesses including simulations, analysis of documents, images, videos, and biographies. In November 2018, Americans will vote for their representatives in Congress and one-third of the nation will also be voting for their senators. This is an opportunity for students to understand the evolution of democracy in America from its historic origins in 1619, the importance of the franchise to vote, expansion of democracy, and the issues their representatives are voting on.

The extension of the House of Burgesses becomes real for students with applications to the local Board of Education, student government, and city or town councils. Students as citizens need to be educated about the people who are up for election, budget decisions, local issues, public forums, voter registration, how their representatives voted on issues, and the election process.

The House of Burgesses experienced difficulty within its first 30 years because of corruption, the unequal distribution of wealth, the concentration of power in the hands of Governor Berkeley and his supporters, attempts to prevent elections, and Bacon’s armed rebellion in 1676. After the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion, Nathaniel Bacon was hanged and racist laws were passed. Thomas Jefferson failed in his legislative efforts to end the slave trade and provide freedom for children of a mother who was a slave. The secret of America’s political strength during the past 400 years has been with the perseverance of ordinary citizens who are committed to a durable government. As a result of dedicated representatives in the colonies and over time in our 50 states and territories, democracy has endured.


The House of Burgesses was relocated to Williamsburg in 1700

Our modern democracy has also experienced difficulty because of corruption, restricting freedoms, forced migration, internment of citizens, and segregation. There are examples of laws that were passed by only one vote, votes influenced by political and economic influence, and laws that were declared unconstitutional. One reason why representative government worked in Virginia is that the burgesses needed the votes of the people to get re-elected. As a result they needed to pass laws that helped the people and maintained a positive relationship with them.

We are living in a time when too many Americans are dissatisfied with their representatives in Washington and in their states and communities. We are frustrated by gridlock, uncertain about the facts, at times uninformed on the issues or candidates, and influenced by the media. Although our representatives are part of our community, we find it difficult to communicate with them and often have no idea as to how they voted on a bill.

According to Jon Meacham in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Thomas Jefferson learned from his days in the House of Burgesses that constant conversation between the president and the lawmakers was important and necessary. Jefferson thought that “if the members are to know nothing but what is important enough to put into a public message…it becomes a government of chance and not of design. The president had to be able to trust lawmakers with insights and opinions that he might not offer a broader audience,, creating a sense of intimacy and common purpose. Making speeches at other politicians – or appearing to be only making speeches at them – was not the best way to enlist their allegiance or their aid, nor to govern well.” Let your students debate if collaboration or twitter messages best facilitates consensus among lawmakers.

The 400th anniversary is an opportunity for student discussion, presentation, simulation, and engagement in their local community and school. It is a time to become better acquainted with the people who represent them and make decisions for their school district, community, state, and our national government. With all the avenues available for communication – Facebook, live streaming, twitter, Instagram, newspapers, radio and television, and personal attendance at a public meeting, everyone should understand the problems, policies, and reasons for change. During this anniversary year, educate students on the ideas and positions of their decision-makers. The content and inquiry by design model is an integral part of the social studies curriculum

New Jersey Standards, K-5

6.1.4.A.1Explain how rules and laws created by community, state, and national governments protect the rights of people, help resolve conflicts, and promote the common good.
6.1.4.A.2Explain how fundamental rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights (i.e., freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the right to vote, and the right to due process) contribute to the continuation and improvement of American democracy.
6.1.4.A.3Determine how “fairness,” “equality,” and the “common good” have influenced new laws and policies over time at the local and national levels of United States government.
6.1.4.A.4Explain how the United States government is organized and how the United States Constitution defines and checks the power of government.
6.1.4.A.5Distinguish the roles and responsibilities of the three branches of the national government.
6.1.4.A.6Explain how national and state governments share power in the federal system of government.
6.1.4.A.7Explain how the United States functions as a representative democracy, and describe the roles of elected representatives and how they interact with citizens at local, state, and national levels.
6.1.4.A.8Compare and contrast how government functions at the community, county, state, and national levels, the services provided, and the impact of policy decisions made at each level.
6.1.4.A.9Compare and contrast responses of individuals and groups, past and present, to violations of fundamental rights (e.g., fairness, civil rights, human rights).
6.1.4.A.11Explain how the fundamental rights of the individual and the common good of the country depend upon all citizens exercising their civic responsibilities at the community, state, national, and global levels.
6.1.4.A.12Explain the process of creating change at the local, state, or national level.
6.1.4.D.5Relate key historical documents (i.e., the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights) to present day government and citizenship.
6.1.4.D.6Describe the civic leadership qualities and historical contributions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin toward the development of the United States government.
6.1.4.D.14Trace how the American identity evolved over time.

Grades 6-8

6.1.8.A.2.b  Explain how and why early government structures developed, and determine the impact of these early structures on the evolution of American politics and institutions.

Grades 9-12

6.1.12.A.1.a  Explain how British North American colonies adapted the British governance structure to fit their ideas of individual rights, economic growth, and participatory government.
6.1.12.A.1.bAnalyze how gender, property ownership, religion, and legal status affected political rights.

New York Standards, 11.1c

  • Colonial political developments were influenced by British political traditions, Enlightenment ideas, and the colonial experience. Self-governing structures were common, and yet varied across the colonies.
  • Students will examine colonial political institutions to determine how they were influenced by Enlightenment ideas, British traditions such as the Magna Carta, and the colonial experience.
  • Students will examine colonial democratic principles by studying documents such as the Mayflower Compact and the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649, colonial governmental structures such as New England town meetings and the Virginia House of Burgesses, and the practice of the right of petition in New Netherland.

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