..WASHINGTON: The last Tuesday of July marked the 400th anniversary of the first meeting of the House of Burgesses at Jamestown. The House of Burgesses is the first representative legislative assembly in the Western Hemisphere. Jamestown is the first permanent English colony in North America.
In April 1619, Colonial Governor George Yeardley arrived in Jamestown
One of Yeardley first announcements was abolishing Marshall Law by the Virginia Company of London. In its place, a legislative assembly is to govern the Virginia colony. From July 30 to August 4, 1619, Yeardley presided over the first meeting of the legislative assembly, convening a group of 22 representatives st the newly built wooden church.
Former Virginia Governor George Allen notes that
” The meeting in Virginia set America on the course toward the ideals of a free and just society..The first Legislative Assembly focused on the important issues of the time—-how to sustain the 12-year-old colony, commercial and economic arrangements, matters of religion, and how to manage relations with the Powhatan Indians. The Legislative Assembly launched a new society based on the rule of law and consent of the governed.”
This first official meeting, states Allen,
“was the formative event in establishing the United State’s’ current system of representative government…These earliest expressions of democracy in Jamestown established important guiding principles, The Jeffersonian freedom of religion…for all men and women in a self-governing representative democracy; private ownership of property as the basis of the free enterprise system…and the rule of law where our natural rights are protected…”
American history found in Virginia.
In 1969, I visited the Berkeley Plantation to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving. I remember interviewing the plantation owner, Malcolm Jamieson. Jamieson showing letters from President John F. Kennedy and former Massachusetts Governor John Volpe declaring beyond a doubt that Berkeley, located in Charles City County, Virginia, was the site if the first formal Thanksgiving in the New World.
Berkeley is the site of other historical firsts as well.
The land of Berkeley was part of a grant made in 1610 by King James I to the Berkeley Company calling it the “Berkeley Hundred.” On December 4, 1619: the settlers stepped ashore there and in accordance with the proprietor’s instructions that
“the day of our ship’s arrival….shall be yearly and perpetually kept as a day of Thanksgiving” celebrated the first Thanksgiving Day—- more than a year before the Pilgrims arrived in New England.
At a time when American history is under attack in some circles, it is important to recognize the great achievement of maintaining representative government for 400 years. The Founding Fathers gave us a system including the flaws of humanity. Soon after its first legislative assembly met in Jamestown, the first slaves arrived at the settlement.
Yet, they created a system with the ability to change and grow.
Looking back, we easily see its faults and imperfections. But 400 years ago, it was the freest spot in the Western world. Continuing to be so for generations.
Being in Jamestown for the 350th anniversary was the start of my close connection with this historic site.
As a freshman at the College of William and Mary, driving the rural roads between Williamsburg and Jamestown, as well as on the Colonial Parkway, between Williamsburg and Yorktown, was how we learned to drive.
History repeats and several of my children also had their first driving experience on these historic highways.
Those who engage in divisional rhetoric on the basis of race, religion, and ethnicity would do well to review Jamestown’s 400-year history.
Our democracy began at Jamestown. We would do well to remember the lessons which our rich and diverse history teaches us. These early settlers were immigrants, leaving their native country for a better life. Men and women have been seeking a better life in America for 400 years.
Thus making America a truly unique society.