1619 and Today
The year 1619 does not loom as large in American memory as some others from our colonial experience. When thinking of those early times of English settlement in North America, 1607, the year Jamestown was founded, and 1620, when the Pilgrims landed in what is now Massachusetts, are more likely to come to mind.
Yet the events of 1619 had a profound impact. They are worth remembering as we enter 2019 and mark the passage of 400 years.
One of them was a great stain: the beginning of slavery in English North America, with the first record of enslaved Africans arriving in Jamestown. While slavery ended with the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a Republican Congress in 1865 and subsequently ratified by the states, its effects still linger.
Another event marked a major shift in the culture of Jamestown: the first large-scale recruitment of women to the colony. While some women had arrived earlier, the settlement retained the overall character of the soldiers and adventurers who had first established it. The Virginia Company’s recruitment of about 90 women introduced families into the social fabric of the colony and gave it longer-term prospects.
A third event was one of our Commonwealth’s signal contributions to the American story.
In a church in Jamestown on July 30, the Governor, four councilors, and 22 burgesses representing the colony’s jurisdictions gathered. They reviewed the laws imposed by the Virginia Company and its charter, regulated commerce and settler conduct, and heard grievances from the colonists.
That first session lasted less than a week, adjourning on August 4 due to the summer heat, but it was the beginning of what is today the House of Delegates, the oldest elected legislative body to have continuously met in the world.
I say “continuously met” as, although the Parliament of the United Kingdom has older roots than our House of Delegates (the rules of that first Assembly were modeled on English parliamentary procedure), during the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s Parliament was dissolved and substituted with the appointed “Barebones Parliament” and the “Protectorate Parliaments.”
Other legislative bodies had appointed members, but from the start, the House of Delegates was elected by at least a portion of its constituents. In the case of the first session, the male freeholders and tenants of the jurisdictions chose the burgesses.
Even if you take out continuously-serving and elected, Virginia’s House of Delegates, which was subsequently confirmed in a charter by King James I a couple of years later, is without dispute the oldest legislative body in the New World.
The establishment of representative government in Virginia charted a path for what would become the thirteen British colonies. It was followed by the Mayflower Compact of 1620, in which the Pilgrims organized themselves as a self-governing body. Colonies that followed set up their own institutions for representative government. Instead of the mother country, the colonists exercised control over their own affairs to a large extent.
Because Virginia had a lot of practice with representative government, our Commonwealth was ready to lead when the colonies sought independence. Virginia’s governing documents and laws, including the Declaration of Rights and the Statute for Religious Freedom, would shape foundations of the new republic such as the Bill of Rights.
Among the Founders who served in the House of Burgesses or, as it became known after declaring independence from Britain, the House of Delegates were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Monroe.
As we begin the new year, think about what was happening in Virginia 400 years ago. That span of time may be hard to fathom, but what happened that year still shapes us.
Slavery’s introduction reminds us that human beings are capable of great cruelty to each other. The birth of representative government in the New World was a great accomplishment of humanity. It started the process toward our current republic based on democratic principles. The legislative process ultimately abolished slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment and guaranteed the right to vote for women through the Nineteenth Amendment, showing that our nation is always capable of improving.
The events of 1619 resonate down to our own time.
While 2019 is not as likely to have the historical significance of 1619, I hope it will be a happy and prosperous year for us all.
If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.