America's First Legislature

First American Legislature
Author: Campbell, Charles

First American Legislature

As a distinctly American event the beginning of formal legislation in
this country has special interest, no less for the general reader than for
students of legal history. None of the early institutions of the fathers is
more important than that which developed into the State legislature.

At the opening of 1609 the Virginia colony, which was not then in a
flourishing condition, asked and obtained from King James I a new character.
The territory was now greatly enlarged, the powers of local government
increased, and Virginia soon entered upon its permanent career.

In 1617 "a party of greedy and unprincipled adventurers" in England
succeeded in having an agent of their own appointed deputy governor. This was
Samuel Argall. Lord Delaware, the Governor, dying in 1618, Argall became
virtual dictator, and under his arbitrary and self-seeking rule the people
suffered. Meanwhile others, in England, were at work in the interest of the
Virginia Company, under whose auspices, from the granting of the new charter,
the colony had existed. Sir Edwin Sandys, in 1618, was made treasurer and
actual governor of the Virginia Company. Through the efforts of Sandys and
others in England, Sir George Yeardley, who had governed Virginia in 1616, was
sent in 1619 to supersede Argall.

This year "was remarkable in the annals of the colony. It is hardly an
exaggeration to say that it witnessed the creation of Virginia as an
independent community." From that year Sandys and his followers maintained
their ascendency, and a high degree of energy and statesmanlike wisdom marked
the administration of the colonial government. The calling of the first
assembly was one of the principal acts of Yeardley's administration.

Sir Thomas Smith, treasurer or governor of the Virginia Company, was
displaced in 1618, and succeeded by Sir Edwin Sandys. This enlightened
statesman and exemplary man was born in Worcestershire in 1561, being the
second son of the Archbishop of York. Educated at Oxford under the care of
"the judicious Hooker," he obtained a prebend in the church of York. He
afterward travelled in foreign countries, and published his observations in a
work entitled Europa Speculum; or, A View of the State of Religion in the
Western World. He resigned his prebend in 1602, was subsequently knighted by
James, in 1603, and employed in diplomatic trusts. His appointment as
treasurer gave great satisfaction to the colony; for free principles were now,
under his auspices, in the ascendent. His name is spelled sometimes "Sandis,"
sometimes "Sands."

When Argall, in April, 1619, stole away from Virginia, he left for his
deputy Captain Nathaniel Powell, who had come over with Captain Smith in 1607,
and had evinced courage and discretion. He was one of the writers from whose
narratives Smith compiled his General History. Powell held this office only
about ten days, when Sir George Yeardley, recently knighted, arrived as
Governor-General, bringing with him new charters for the colony. John Rolfe,
who had been secretary, now lost his place, probably owing to his connivance
at Argall's malpractices, and was succeeded by John Pory. He was educated at
Cambridge, where he took the degree of master of arts in April, 1610. It is
supposed that he was member of the House of Commons. He was much of a
traveller, and was at Venice in 1613, at Amsterdam in 1617, and shortly after
at Paris. By the Earl of Warwick's influence he now procured the place of
secretary of the colony of Virginia, having come over in April, 1619, with Sir
George Yeardley, who appointed him one of his council.

In June Governor Yeardley summoned the first legislature that ever met in
America. It assembled at James City of James-town on Friday, July 30, 1619,
upward of a year before the Mayflower left England with the Pilgrims. A record
of the proceedings is preserved in the London State Paper Office, in the form
of a report from the speaker, John Pory.

John Pory, secretary of the colony, was chosen speaker, and John Twine,
clerk. The Assembly sat in the choir of the church, the members of the
council sitting on either side of the Governor, and the speaker right before
him, the clerk next the speaker, and Thomas Pierse, the sergeant, standing at
the bar. Before commencing business, prayer was said by Mr. Bucke, the

Each burgess then, as called on, took the oath of supremacy. When the
name of Captain Ward was called, the speaker objected to him as having seated
himself on land without authority. Objections were also made to the burgesses
appearing to represent Captain Martin's patent, because they were, by its
terms, exempted from any obligation to obey the laws of the colony. Complaint
was made by Opochancano that corn had been forcibly taken from some of his
people in the Chesapeake by Ensign Harrison, commanding a shallop belonging to
this Captain John Martin, "master of the Ordinance."

The speaker read the commission for establishing the council of state and
the General Assembly, and also the charter brought out by Sir Thomas Yeardley.
This last was referred to several committees for examination, so that if they
should find anything "not perfectly squaring with the state of the colony, or
any law pressing or binding too hard," they might by petition seek to have it
redressed, "especially because this great charter is to bind us and our heirs
forever." Mr. Abraham Persey was the Cape merchant. The price at which he was
to receive tobacco, "either for commodities or upon bills," was fixed at three
shillings for the best and eighteen pence for the second rate.

After inquiry the burgesses from Martin's patent were excluded, and the
Assembly "humbly demanded" of the Virginia Company an explanation of that
clause in his patent entitling him to enjoy his lands as amply as any lord of
a manor in England, adding, "the least the Assembly can allege against this
clause is that it is obscure and that it is a thing impossible for us here to
know the prerogatives of all the manors in England." And they prayed that the
clause in the charter guaranteeing equal liberties and immunities to grantees,
might not be violated, so as to "divert out of the true course the free and
public current of justice." Thus did the first Assembly of Virginia insist
upon the principle of the Declaration of Rights of 1776, that "no man or set
of men are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the
community, but in consideration of public services."

Certain instructions sent out from England were "drawn into laws" for
protection of the Indians from injury, and regulating intercourse with them,
and educating their children, and preparing some of the most promising boys
"for the college intended for them; that from thence they may be sent to that
work of conversion"; for regulating agriculture, tobacco, and sassafras, then
the chief merchantable commodities raised. Upon Captain Powell's petition, "a
lewd and treacherous servant of his" was sentenced to stand for four days with
his ears nailed to the pillory, and be whipped each day. John Rolfe
complained that Captain Martin had made unjust charges against him, and cast
"some aspersion upon the present government, which is the most temperate and
just that ever was in this country - too mild, indeed, for many of this
colony, whom unwonted liberty hath made insolent, and not to know themselves."

On the last day of the session were enacted such laws as issued "out of
every man's private conceit." "It shall be free for every man to trade with
the Indians, servants only excepted upon pain of whipping, unless the master
will redeem it off with the payment of an angel." "No man to sell or give any
of the greater hoes to the Indians, or any English dog of quality, as a
mastiff, greyhound, bloodhound, land or water spaniel." "Any man selling arms
or ammunition to the Indians, to be hanged so soon as the fact is proved." All
ministers shall duly "read divine service, and exercise their ministerial
function according to the ecclesiastical laws and orders of the Church of
England, and every Sunday, in the afternoon, shall catechize such as are not
ripe to come to the communion." All persons going up or down the James River
were to touch at James City, "to know whether the Governor will command them
any service." "All persons whatsoever, upon the Sabbath days, shall frequent
divine service and sermons, both forenoon and afternoon; and all such as bear
arms shall bring their pieces, swords, powder, and shot."

Captain Henry Spellman, charged by Robert Poole, interpreter, with
speaking ill of the Governor "at Opochancano's court," was degraded from his
rank of captain, and condemned to serve the colony for seven years as
interpreter to the Governor. Paspaheigh, embracing three hundred acres of
land, was also called Argallstown, and was part of the tract appropriated to
the Governor. To compensate the speaker, clerk, sergeant, and
provost-marshal, a pound of the best tobacco was levied from every male above
sixteen years of age.

The Assembly prayed that the treasurer, council, and company would not
"take it in ill part if these laws, which we have now brought to light, do
pass current, and be of force till such time as we may know their further
pleasure out of England; for otherwise this people (who now at length have got
their reins of former servitude into their own swindge) would, in short time,
grow so insolent as they would shake off all government, and there would be no
living among them." They also prayed the company to "give us power to allow or
disallow of their orders of court, as his majesty hath given them power to
allow or reject our laws." So early did it appear that, from the necessity of
the case, the colony must in large part legislate for itself, and so early did
a spirit of independence manifest itself.

Owing to the heat of the weather several of the burgesses fell sick and
one died, and thus the Governor was obliged abruptly, on August 4th, to
prorogue the Assembly till March 1st. There being as yet no counties laid
off, the representatives were elected from the several towns, plantations, and
hundreds, styled boroughs, and hence they were called burgesses.

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