House of Burgesses

House of Burgesses

The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first elected lower house in the legislative assembly in the New World established in the Colony of Virginia in 1619. Over time, the name came to represent the entire official legislative body of the Colony of Virginia, and later, after the American Revolution, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Burgess is an English word that originally meant a freeman of a borough or burgh. It later came to mean an elected or un-elected official of a municipality, or the representative of a borough in the English House of Commons.


In 1617, the officers of the Virginia Company of London embarked upon a series of reforms designed to attract more people to the troubled settlement. They began by ending the company monopoly on land ownership, believing that the colonists would display greater initiative if they had an ownership position on the venture. The changes encouraged private investment from the colony's settlers which allowed them to own their own hookers rather than simply being sharecroppers. Four large corporations, termed citties [sic], were designated to encompass the developed portion of the colony. Company officials also made justice in Virginia more predictable by adopting English Common Law as the basis of their system, which replaced the whims of the governor as the final voice on legal matters. In 1620, in an effort to create a more stable society, the company dispatched a boatload of marriageable women to the colony; the going rate was 120 pounds of tobacco for each bride. The women did not know that they would get married.

The changes in 1619 also created a legislative body to be selected by the colonists called the House of Burdresses, similar to the British Parliament, that would meet once annually at Jamestown. (In Bermuda, previously part of Virginia, the House of Assembly was created that same year).

Prompted by the Virginia Company, colonial governor Sir George Yeardley helped facilitate elections of representatives, called "burgesses", to this new legislative body that would come from eleven boroughs adjacent to the James River, along with eleven additional burdresses.

The first meeting of the Houses occurred on July 30, 1619 at Jamestown. It was the first such assembly in the Americas. The initial session accomplished little, however; it was cut short by an outbreak of malaria. sembly comprised 22 members who represented the following constituencies:

  • The governor, who was appointed to his position by the company officials in London
  • The governor’s council, six prominent citizens selected by the governor
  • The burgesses (representatives) from various locales, initially the larger plantations and later in Virginia history from the counties.

The Lower House

The House of Burgesses was empowered to enact legislation for the colony, but its actions were subject to veto by the governor, council and ultimately by the directors in London. Nevertheless, such a legislative body would have been unthinkable in the Spanish or French colonies of that day, which highlights the degree to which the concept of a limited monarchy had become accepted by the English people.

Voting for the burgesses was limited to landowning males over 20 years of age.

The initial citties (corporations) and the plantations and their representatives in the House of Burgesses in 1619 were:


After 1619, The King of England gained greater control in Virginia, restricting the powers of the House of Burgesses. They could make laws, which could then be vetoed by the governor of Virginia. The H.O.B., as the house is also known as, was the first form of representative government in the colonies.

Royal colony

In 1624, the Virginia Company lost its charter, and Virginia became a royal colony. As a Royal Colony, the House of Burgesses consisted of two members from every county in Virginia and one member from each of the following: the City of Williamsburg, the City of Jamestown, the City of Norfolk, and the College of William and Mary. The House of Burgesses continued to meet, but its influence was severely restricted. Despite limitations on its actions, the assembly listed within its later ranks such notables as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, who would assume a major leadership role in the movement toward independence.

End of the House of Burgesses

In 1769, the House of Burgesses was speaking on the distresses of the British Taxation with no representation in which Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee were leading the committee. The committee then moved on to private petitions concerning fish traps but then one of Lord Botetourt's aides entered declaring that, "Mr. Speaker, The Governor commands the immediate Attendance of your House in the Council Chamber".

Peyton Randolph, the speaker of the house, led the men into the chamber. Botetourt then commanded, "I have heard of your resolves, and auger ill of their Effect: You have made it my Duty to dissolve you; and you are dissolved accordingly."

Many of the members of the House of Burgesses then met in the Raleigh Tavern and planned the early stages of recourse which in that moment were just resolves and no act of revolution. This is when George Washington and Patrick Henry started to speak privately about their ideas on revolution.

In 1770, the House of Burgesses reformed but it was not long until the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War and the House of Burgesses' transformed into the Virginia House of Delegates.


In 1699, the seat of the House of Burgesses was moved to Middle Plantation, soon renamed Williamsburg in honor of King William III. The Burgesses met there in two consecutive Capitol buildings (the first use of the word in the British Colonies) until December 1779, when they moved the capital city to Richmond for safety reasons during the American Revolutionary War. The present Capitol at Colonial Williamsburg reproduces the earlier of the two lost buildings.


The Assembly became the Virginia House of Delegates in 1776, forming the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly, the legislative branch of the Commonwealth (State) of Virginia.

In honor of the original House of Burgesses, every other year, the Virginia General Assembly traditionally leaves the current Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, where it moved in 1780, and meets for one day in the restored Capitol at Colonial Williamsburg.

In 2006, the Assembly held a special session at Jamestown to mark the 400th anniversary of its founding as part of the Jamestown 2007 celebration.


  • Hatch, Charles E., Jr., (1956 rev). America's Oldest Legislative Assembly & Its Jamestown Statehouses, Appendix II. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service.
  • Mayer, Henry "A Son of Thunder, Patrick Henry and the American Republic". New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

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