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What is the House of Burgesses?

By Matt Brady
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first legislative assembly to be set up in the Americas and was an important step in the movement toward independence from the English monarchy. Although the legislative body was still under the rule of the English crown, it established an important precedent: England was to have a limited monarchy over the region, giving Virginians — and the ensuing colonies — the freedom to form their own local laws for governance. This kind of monarchical governance stood in sharp contrast to the Spanish and French monarchies, which wielded total power over their colonies. The legislative body first met in 1619 in the Jamestown Church, and over time, it became an important intellectual meeting place for revolutionary American figures such as George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson.

The House of Burgesses was an important experiment in democracy during colonial times; it would help set up legislative bodies that would continue to be models for democracy after America declared independence from England. It's perhaps odd, then, that England had a significant hand in setting up the legislative assembly. The Virginia Company, a London company established by the King that was responsible for the Jamestown settlement, voted to set up the body under the belief that it would make the settlement more attractive to live in.

In setting up the assembly, the Virginia Company hoped to make Jamestown more attractive by giving locals a hand in their own government. Other efforts to make the settlement an attractive place to live included replacing the martial law that had ruled there with the more civil English Common Law and allowing locals to own land for the first time. In compliance with these decisions, Governor George Yeardley traveled from England to Virginia to set up the legislative body in 1619.

Under the new assembly, burgesses, or elected officials, were to be elected by the people of Jamestown. Only white male landowners over the age of 17 could vote, however. Initially, 22 burgesses — two representatives for 11 settlements — were elected. The new assembly met on 30 July 1619, and worked to set a minimum sales price for tobacco. The assembly wasn't intended by England to be completely autonomous; that would have subverted the rule of the monarchy, something King James I wasn't willing to do. England would continue to have veto power over the colony through the governor, Virginia Company officials, and ultimately the king himself.

In 1624, King James I dissolved the Virginia Company, and the Virginia settlement officially became a royal colony. This turn of events curtailed some of the legislative freedom of the House of Burgesses. Governors were instituted that had little regard for how the burgesses thought the colony should be governed and taxed. Nevertheless, the assembly continued to thrive as an important group through which political ideas were exchanged and built upon, even if England didn't always heed them. Between that period of time and America's independence, many important American figures were elected to the group and continued to build upon the idea of a democracy independent from the English monarchy.

The House of Burgesses was an essential part of the legislative framework that would become the U.S. government. In 1776, when America declared independence, it became the first General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia. One of the first major pieces of legislation to come through the General Assembly was the movement for religious equality and the disestablishment of the Church of England in Virginia. Once the nation successfully achieved independence, the established model provided by the General Assembly in Virginia proved an invaluable resource in building the new democratic system.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By FitzMaurice — On Mar 05, 2011


In spite of the fact that there is some classism still left in New England, it is the general rule of thumb in America that people with skills and assets of leadership will tend to find a way to the top of the ladder. I'm not saying it isn't difficult, but unlike in the old world, you aren't forced to stay in a caste system like you would be in Europe.

By BigBloom — On Mar 03, 2011


I would argue that classism continued to thrive in New England for a very long time, and is still present to this day to some extent. If you visit New England, you may be surprised at how European it seems. The accents in a given town will vary depending on what social group a person is a part of. The diversity of regional accents and class accents is actually pretty drastic.

By arod2b42 — On Mar 01, 2011

The house of "burgesses" literally meant a house ruled by bourgeois middle class people in the new world. This is what America came to be, a place where everyone can be heard and classism is a relic of the past.

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