By Megan McClure
NCSL, in partnership with American Evolution, took an NCSL Legislative Summit session back in time.
On July 30, 1619, the first group of elected representatives sat for their first day of session. Legislators, legislative staff, and history geeks gathered Tuesday to get back to these roots of American state legislatures.
Susan Clarke Schaar, clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates, moderated the look back at the unique history of representative democracy in Virginia and how its legacy remains at the heart of modern state legislatures. Professor Warren Billings of Salem State College set the historical stage, outlining what motivated the creation of the office of burgess, a representative body, two of which were elected by each plantation or settlement. She explained how the office of burgess was created by the Great Charter, signed by King Henry I and carried to the Jamestown settlement by their new governor. Billings walked through how these humble beginnings of representative democracy evolved and bloomed into the current robust representative democracy of state legislatures today.
Virginia Senator Ryan T. McDougle (R) remarked on the legacy of some of the legislative rules and the ideals of local government that grew out of this first meeting in 1619. Virginia Delegate Kenneth R. Plum (D) drew the attendee’s attention to the events of 1607—the first landing of settlers on the coast of what would become the state of Virginia—and 1619 as a case study for looking at problems and experiences from both sides.
He emphasized looking at the events of American settlement not only from the perspective of the settlers, but also from the perspective of the Native Americans who already inhabited the area. Building off of this case study, Plum emphasized the importance of learning from mistakes. The conversation then moved on to a wider perspective offered from New Hampshire House Speaker Shawn Jasper (R), who used the juxtaposition of how this unique legislative history of Virginia and its legacy in the region to highlight the importance of procedure and decorum and the importance of preserving the legislative institution.
After the speakers primed the group with a history lesson and how they see this history alive today in their own legislatures, attendees were given time to discuss pieces of legislation that were passed in the first short session in 1619. This first spate of legislation touched on subjects of taxes, agriculture, labor and worker’s rights and state relations.
Attendees noticed similarities in subject matter and how the general assembly went about its work, noting the beginnings of what would become the noncompetition clause pertaining to those contracting to bring workers to the new colony. But they found differences in the way the legislation was written, noting the obvious absence of the single subject rule and lack of a uniform style guide.
The agriculture group noted the requirement of each farmer to reserve one barrel of corn to be kept in case of public need, could be considered a rudimentary rainy day fund. After finding these legislative roots the group came back to the future to find it not quite as different and distant as they had previously imagined.
Megan McClure is a senior staff assistant with NCSL's Legislative Staff Services program.