The NCSL Blog


By Nicholas Birdsong and Megan McClure

The history of state legislatures could be considered to have begun in 1619, with the first elected colonial representatives in Virginia.

Ben Franklin with headphonesBut those first burgesses, as they were called at the time, were still British subjects. No authority existed besides that which was delegated by the crown, and royally appointed executives would retain most governing power across the colonies for another roughly 150 years.

It wasn't until the Revolutionary War that states independently made their own laws.

The relationship between the colonies and England remained positive throughout most of the colonial period. Even in the midst of the conflict, roughly half of the American population remained loyal to the crown. So, what happened?

In a word: taxes.

Parliament racked up substantial debts defending its North American possessions during the Seven Years' War (1754-1763), such that more than half of the British national budget was going toward loan payments. In an effort to recoup those costs, steep taxes were imposed on the colonists.

The colonies had war debts and economic struggles of their own. On top of that, many prominent leaders—both domestically and in England—questioned the lawfulness of the tax under the English Bill of Rights, summarized by the slogan-turned-battle cry, "no taxation without representation."

Conflicts gradually escalated from 1765 onward, culminating in war and the creation of 13 independent states. But after the war ended, the states still had to learn to cooperate without a unifying, external threat.

Join NCSL’s podcast miniseries, "Building Democracy," part of "Our American States," on its journey through the history of American state legislatures.

The second episode tells the story of how a handful of colonial possessions became the first American states. How did deliberative bodies make the transition from colonial assemblies to provincial congresses during the conflict, and then to democratically elected legislatures, in a tumultuous time of uncertainty? Tune in and find out.

Nicholas Birdsong is a policy specialist in the Center for Legislative Strengthening and Center for Ethics in Government at NCSL.

Email Nicholas

Megan McClure is a research analyst with NCSL's Legislative Staff Services Program.

Email Megan

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.