American Evolution Series: How the American Government Began in Virginia

by Monica Mitchell | Posted: Jun 3, 2019 | Updated: Aug 21, 2019

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jamestown

Join us during the month of July in the birthplace of American democracy at Jamestown for special programs, exhibits, and performances marking the 400th anniversary of the First Representative Legislative Assembly in the New World.

 

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

America’s first permanent English colony was founded at Jamestown in 1607. The colony was chartered by King James I and the Virginia Company of London made up of investors who hoped to profit from the venture. Soon after arriving at Jamestown, colonists were faced with a harsh reality of hardship, starvation, fatalities, and clashes with native peoples which ensued for many years.

During the early years, colonists were mostly upper-class Englishmen trying to establish a number of small industries in order to make a profit for the Virginia Company. All attempts had failed until the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop in 1613 by colonist John Rolfe, who later married Chief Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas. Tobacco farming required large amounts of land and labor, which quickly set the Virginia colony on a course to a successful and profitable enterprise.

As prosperity was realized, so was a growing sentiment that the colony should be more than just a commercial enterprise, and become a permanent settlement. To establish a permanent settlement, colonists wanted input in the laws governing them. Thus in April 1619, Governor George Yeardley arrived, announcing that the Virginia Company had voted for the abolition of martial law and the creation of a legislative assembly.

Yeardley brought with him a set of instructions known as the “Great Charter”. The papers authorized Yeardley to oversee the selection of two male settlers from each of the eleven major settlement areas to attend a “General Assembly” with the purpose of passing laws and hopefully improving management in the colony. The representatives, known as the House of Burgesses, sat with the Governor and his appointed council as the Assembly.

Historic Jamestowne

The meeting of the first General Assembly took place from July 30 through August 4 in the church at Jamestown, likely because the church was the largest building at the time. It was unbearably hot during the six-day session, one Burgess even died, but the assembly managed to cover several items and adopt measures for governing the colony.

“After 1619, the General Assembly met only sporadically, and formal recognition of the Assembly by the English crown did not come until 1627. The Virginia Company continued to appoint governors and issue instructions, but representation of the will of the people had begun. The concept of parliamentary government was brought to Virginia, and the General Assembly gradually evolved into a two-house form of government in the 1640s. This bicameral legislature continues today as Virginia’s General Assembly. It became the model for other English colonies and eventually the basis for the democratic government of the United States of America.” (2019 Commemoration).

 

AMERICAN EVOLUTION – JULY PROGRAMS & EVENTS

Plan a trip to the Historic Triangle in Williamsburg to celebrate the American tradition of democracy.

Origins of American Democracy

When: July 1-30 at Jamestown Settlement

  • Month-long programs in July honoring the 400th anniversary of the 1619 first General Assembly, the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere.
  • July 1 through September 30 – An exhibit featuring the original 1619 minutes of the first General Assembly — on loan for the first time in America from The National Archives of the United Kingdom — will be available for public viewing at Jamestown Settlement.
  • July 11 – “Leadership in Turbulent Times” (advance reservations required) lecture by Presidential Historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin.

 

Democracy Weekend

When: July 27-28 at Jamestown Settlement

The weekend event features themed tours, interpretive programs, military exercises, and re-enactments of the first assembly of 20 “burgesses” who convened at Jamestown.

 

400th Commemorative Ceremony of The First Representative Legislative Assembly

When: July 30 at Historic Jamestowne

  • The public is invited to Historic Jamestowne to commemorate 400 years of democracy with day-long tours, ceremonies, archaeology exhibits, and reenactments. Bring your family and lawn chairs to enjoy the American Evolution Fanfare to Democracy FREE evening concert featuring the Richmond Symphony and presented by Riverside Health System.
  • Also on July 30, members of the Virginia General Assembly, along with representatives from the United States Congress, state legislatures nationwide, and international dignitaries will convene at Jamestown Settlement for the 400th Commemorative Session of the Virginia General Assembly. The Virginia General Assembly is the oldest continuous law-making body in the Western Hemisphere. The public can view this historic event via live stream online and at Historic Jamestowne.

 

“Forgotten Soldier” Exhibition

When: June 29, 2019 – March 22, 2020 at American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

Discover personal stories of enslaved and free African Americans who fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War through interactive elements and compelling art displays, including a new contemporary work by nationally acclaimed artist Titus Kaphar. Follow the forgotten stories of African Americans who enlisted as soldiers for the American cause for a free and independent nation and those who joined British forces with the promise of obtaining their own freedom. Related public programs feature a series of lectures, genealogy workshops and interpretive demonstrations with reenactors from African-American military regiments.

 

The 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution™, highlights events that occurred in Virginia in 1619 that continue to influence America today. Featured programs, events and legacy projects will take place throughout the rest of 2019. American Evolution™ commemorates the ongoing journey toward the key ideals of democracy, diversity and opportunity.
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