The First General Assembly

The Oldest Continuous Law-Making Body in the Western Hemisphere

Since the founding of Jamestown, the Virginia Company had grappled with how to govern the colony. Initially, they chose a resident council, chiefly comprised of elites, who would lead the colony. However, mismanagement by council members during the colony’s difficult first years led the Virginia Company to appoint a royal governor and a governor’s council in 1609. By 1612, the Deputy Governor, Sir Thomas Dale, developed and implemented a set of military laws in an effort to establish order. These strictly enforced laws, the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, were unpopular in the colony, and not the final answer to the question of government at Jamestown.

After colonist John Rolfe established a profitable strain of tobacco, the colony needed to attract more labor to work this cash crop. In 1618, Virginia Company investor Sir Edwin Sandys set the “Great Charter,” which encouraged Englishmen to come to Virginia by offering them land. The new charter also provided a new system of governance in the colony. This new government gave inhabitants a chance to participate in administrating the colony’s affairs, and therefore, give them a stake in the colony’s success.

The first representative assembly in the western hemisphere met in the church at Jamestown Island, Virginia on July 30, 1619. This General Assembly consisted of the Governor, his council, and 22 representatives serving as a House of Burgesses elected by the inhabitants of these towns. The burgesses served from each of the following areas: James Citty, Charles Citty, Citty of Henricus, Kiccowtan, Martin Brandon, Smythe’s Hundred, Martin’s Hundred, Argall’s guiffe, Flowerdiew Hundred, Captain Lawnes Plantation, and Captain Warde’s Plantation. While the Governor still had veto power, the representatives were allowed to pass laws. The authority that this self-governing body possessed evolved through the 17th century aided by some of the royal governors, who convened the Assembly once a year. It became an essential component of the colony’s government. The General Assembly continued to meet at Jamestown until 1699 when Middle Plantation, later Williamsburg, became the capital of the colony.