House of Burgesses Summary
The Virginia House of Burgesses, established in 1619 in the Virginia Colony, was the first elected representative government in America. The members were known as “Burgesses,” and were elected to represent the towns and plantations in the colony. Their purpose was to meet with the Governor and the Governor’s Council to discuss and pass laws for the colony. Over time, the House of Burgesses gained more power and eventually became a bicameral legislature. As the American Revolution intensified, it played a critical role in events, adopting the Virginia Stamp Resolves and organizing the permanent Committees of Correspondence. Some of the most important Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry served as Burgesses. The assembly was dissolved in 1776 when Virginia declared independence and created a state constitution.
House of Burgesses Facts
- In 1618, the Virginia Company appointed Sir George Yeardley as Governor of the Virginia Colony and issued the “Great Charter.”
- The Great Charter abolished martial law in Virginia, created the Headright System, and authorized Governor Yeardley to call a General Assembly.
- The purpose of the General Assembly was to propose and pass legislation governing the colony.
- Two “Burgesses” — or representatives — from the 11 towns and plantations were elected to the General Assembly.
- The House of Burgesses was the first elected representative assembly in Colonial America.
- The first meeting was held on July 30, 1619, in Jamestown.
- The House of Burgesses played a crucial role in the American Revolution and the founding of the United States government.
- Many prominent figures in American history began their political careers as burgesses, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry.
- The House of Burgesses was dissolved in 1776 and replaced by the General Assembly, consisting of an elected Senate and a House of Delegates.
- The House of Burgesses inspired similar legislative bodies in other colonies and played an important role in the development of representative government and private property ownership in the English colonies.
House of Burgesses Frequently Asked Questions
The House of Burgesses was the first elected representative assembly in Colonial America. It was established in 1619 by the Virginia Company and consisted of elected representatives from the towns and plantations in Virginia. The purpose of the House of Burgesses was to work with the Governor and the Governor’s Council to pass laws and make decisions for Virginia. It was a unicameral legislative body until 1643 when Governor Sir William Berkeley allowed the House of Burgesses to meet separately, creating a bicameral legislative system.
The House of Burgesses was important for several reasons. It was the first elected representative government in Colonial America and served as a model for other colonies in establishing their own representative assemblies. It also provided a means for Virginia colonists to have a voice in their own governance.
The Virginia Company was a joint-stock company, responsible for founding Virginia Colony in 1607, starting with the establishment of Jamestown. The Virginia Company appointed Sir George Yeardley as Governor in 1618. One of the founding members of the Virginia Company, Edwin Sandys, helped write a new charter for Virginia, known as the “The Great Charter,” which ordered Yeardley to establish a General Assembly, elected by the people of Virginia.
Edwin Sandys played an important role in the establishment of the House of Burgesses because he helped write the “Instructions to George Yeardley,” which included directions for setting up a General Assembly. Yeardley complied with the instructions for “two Burgesses from each Plantation freely to be elected by the inhabitants thereof.” The General Assembly, then, would “establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia” for the purpose of passing “just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting.”
The House of Burgesses met for the first time on July 30, 1619, in the wooden church at Jamestown. John Pory served as Speaker of the Assembly.
At the first meeting of the House of Burgesses, 22 men, representing 11 settlements, assembled in Jamestown with Governor Yeardley and his Governor’s Council. Together, they approved legislation related to tobacco prices, servant contracts, and other issues of concern to the colonists. The first meeting lasted for six days and the weather was so hot and humid that two men became ill and one died.
During the Stamp Act Crisis in 1765, the House of Burgesses played a critical role in opposing the British government’s attempt to enforce the Stamp Act. Patrick Henry introduced a series of resolutions known as the Stamp Act Resolves, which argued that only the General Assembly had the authority to levy taxes on Virginia colonists. Henry also argued any attempts by the British government to tax Virginians without their consent was an attack on their rights. The resolutions were passed by the House of Burgesses and published throughout the American Colonies.
The House of Burgesses was dissolved on May 24, 1774, by the Royal Governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore. Following the passage of the Intolerable Acts, the Burgesses passed a resolution for a Day of Feasting and Prayer in support of the city of Boston. In the resolution, the Burgesses said it was “highly necessary that the said first Day of June be set apart by the Members of this House as a Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer, devoutly to implore the divine Interposition for averting the heavy Calamity, which threatens Destruction to our civil Rights, and the Evils of civil War; to give us one Heart and one Mind firmly to oppose, by all just and proper Means, every Injury to American Rights…” Dunmore was so upset over the resolution that he immediately dissolved the Assembly.
After Lord Dunmore dissolved the Assembly in 1774, the members of the House of Burgesses responded by secretly meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. Five meetings were held, which are known as the “Virginia Conventions.” The first four conventions dealt with how to plan for the defense of the colony in the event of war, including the establishment of the Committee of Safety. In 1776, the fifth Virginia Convention formally declared the relationship between Virginia and Great Britain “totally dissolved.” Then it directed its delegates to the Second Continental Congress to introduce a resolution for independence — the Lee Resolution.
The House of Burgesses officially ended on May 6, 1776, when the last meeting was held and the members “determined not to adjourn, but let that body die.” The General Assembly, consisting of the House of Delegates and the Senate, replaced the House of Burgesses and declared Virginia’s independence from Britain.
House of Burgesses Significance
The House of Burgesses is important to United States history because it was the first elected representative government in Colonial America. Over time, it played a key role in the American Revolution, especially in resisting the Stamp Act and establishing permanent Committees of Correspondence. As the American Revolution intensified, members established the Virginia Conventions, which were responsible for declaring Virginia’s independence from Great Britain and introducing the Lee Resolution during the Second Continental Congress.
House of Burgesses AP US History (APUSH) Study Guide
Use the following links and videos to study the House of Burgesses, the Virginia Colony, and the 13 Original Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.
House of Burgesses APUSH Definition
The House of Burgesses was the first elected legislative assembly in the New World, established in Virginia in 1619. It was composed of two representatives from each of the colony’s 11 districts and was responsible for making laws in the colony, including setting taxes. It was an early form of representative democracy in America, although voting rights were restricted to white, male property owners. The House of Burgesses played an important role in the development of self-government and representative democracy in America, and many of its members went on to play significant roles in the American Revolution and became Founding Fathers.
American History Central Resources and Related Topics
- Headright System in Colonial America
- Bacon’s Rebellion
- Nathaniel Bacon
- The Burning of Jamestown
- Patrick Henry
- Virginia Stamp Act Resolves
- George Washington
- Thomas Jefferson
House of Burgesses Video — Colonial Government in APUSH Period 2
This video from Heimler’s History provides an overview of government in Colonial America, including the Virginia House of Burgesses.