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Virginia House of Burgesses—Pic of the Week

Spring may be the best time of year to take a break and visit Virginia’s historic triangle and Williamsburg, Virginia, especially the Virginia House of Burgesses. Spring is the anniversary time of so many historic revolutionary moments in Virginia.

The House of Burgesses is the oldest English-speaking representative assembly in the New World, dating back to its establishment in Jamestown in 1619. The assembly originally met in an Anglican church as a unicameral body including the governor, governor’s council, and the elected burgesses. In 1641, the assembly separated into the governor’s council and the house of burgesses, and moved to a statehouse complex in Jamestown. Burgess originally meant a member of parliament in a town or borough; however,  in the colonies, it came to mean an elected representative in the colonies of Maryland and Virginia. The king appointed the governor of Virginia, and the governor’s council and the burgesses were elected representatives of Virginia.  It should be noted that only white male landowners over the age of 21 could vote. After King James I revoked the Virginia Company’s charter, in 1624, and made Virginia a crown colony, the king gained the authority to dissolve the house of burgesses at will, a power that came to bear greater importance when Virginians were opposing the various taxes imposed by the Crown prior to the Revolutionary War (the Sugar Act, the Quartering Act, the Townshend Act, the Stamp Act, etc.).

House of Burgesses, facing end of Duke of Gloucester Street [photo by Rebecca Raupach]

The Jamestown statehouse burned down on three separate occasions.  After the last time it burned, in 1698, the assembly voted to move to the colonial capitol to Middle Plantation, which was then renamed Williamsburg after King William III. Until the new capitol was built, the burgesses gathered in the Wren Building at the College of William and Mary. In 1704, the burgesses first used the newly built house of burgesses, the Virginia colonial capitol at Williamsburg. The House of Burgesses continued as the legislative body of Virginia until 1775, when the burgesses voted to reform as the Virginia House of Delegates.

The first capitol was built by Henry Cary and was used until it burned in 1747. On November 1, 1753, the burgesses met in the rebuilt capitol for the first time. After the capitol had moved to Richmond for safety in 1779, the bricks from the west wing were sold.  In 1832, the east wing burned down, with only some of the foundation remaining. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities deeded the grounds to Colonial Williamsburg in 1928. Colonial Williamsburg arranged for the site to be reconstructed most closely following the drawings of the first capitol as built by Henry Cary, although the new building takes some creative license with the original design. The Virginia General Assembly meets ceremonially in Williamsburg for one session every other year. The capitol building was the flashpoint of some of the more fiery moments in the history of the founding of the United States such as Patrick Henry’s Caesar-Brutus speech and the defiant resolutions of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Some of our best-known founding fathers—Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, George Wythe, Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, and Francis Lightfoot Lee—practiced part of their legislative careers there. The building is a memory palace for students of early American history.

House of Burgesses on the Nicholson Street side, facing the gaol [photo by Rebecca Raupach]

House of Burgesses, Williamsburg, VA  facing Francis Street [photo by Rebecca Raupach]

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