By Megan McClure
The first convening of the first representative legislative body to meet on American soil wasn't all that different from today's state legislatures—except no social media selfies of the 22 democratically elected men who attended.
During next week's Legislative Summit in Boston, NCSL, in conjunction with American Evolution, will host a session examining that first meeting of the Virginia colonial Burgesses in 1619 and examining how this legacy and many of the issues the burgesses legislated and discussed in their first session remain alive in state legislatures today.
Here is a list of 5 things to know about the burgesses to wet your palate and be “in the know” for the upcoming session.
This lower legislative house was made up of 22 men. Two Burgesses were selected from each plantation and, along with the royally appointed Governor and Council of State, made up the first general assembly in Virginia. They reviewed legislation proposed by the King and the Virginia Company, as well as developed, discussed and passed legislation created within the colony.
The office of Burgess was chartered by King James I and the Virginia Company of London. The Virginia Company of London was a joint-stock company chartered by King James I in 1606 to establish a colony in North America. The company founded a settlement at Jamestown in 1607, and over the next two decades, the king granted the company two new charters, one democratizing its governance and another restructuring the financial model.
The office of Burgess was created in order to address complaints and mounting evidence of corruption, misgovernment and, oppression brought against the previous military appointed government. To allow for the colonists to have a say in the laws, customs and economic policy of the colony they were striving (and oftentimes dying) to develop.
The Great Charter that authorized and directed the creation of the Burgesses was signed Nov. 18, 1618. The governor, Sir George Yeardley, called for the election of two burgesses from each settlement, which occured in the early summer of 1619.The first session of the General Assembly including the burgesses was held from July 30 to Aug. 4,1619. The session ended early due to illness (which led to the death of one Burgess during session) and oppressive heat that was forecast to continue into the foreseeable future.
From 1619 until 1643, elected Burgesses met in unicameral session with the governor and the royally appointed governor's council. After 1643, the burgesses met separately as the lower house of the General Assembly of Virginia.
What is American Evolution?
AMERICAN EVOLUTION commemorates the 400th anniversary of several key historical events that occurred in Virginia in 1619, including the first general session to include the burgesses, that continue to influence America today. Featured events, programs, and legacy projects inspire local, national, and international engagement in the themes of democracy, diversity, and opportunity. American Evolution will have a booth at the exhibit hall in Boston where conference attendees can record a video on the evolution of democracy and share it on social media. Attendees will also get a chance to have their picture taken with a character interpreter dressed as a burgess from 1619.
Megan McClure is a senior staff assistant with NCSL's Legislative Staff Services program.