Representative government in America began this week — 399 years ago

If you were at Jamestown—the tiny English settlement on the banks of the James River in Virginia—399 years ago this week, you probably would have been aware that something unusual was happening. Over in the rough-hewn, thatch-roofed church building, 22 duly elected settlers, six councilors, and their newly arrived governor, all white males, were braving the intense summer heat to attend the first meeting of the “general Assemblie.” A new English charter a year earlier had authorized formation of this first representative assembly in the dozen-year-old colony, and the new governor, Sir George Yeardley, had seen to the charter’s implementation. It was the beginning of representative democracy in America, the forerunner of our Congress, state legislatures, and other representative bodies. Planted in Virginia a year before the Mayflower arrived from England, representative government would take root firmly, blossom in 13 largely self-governing colonies, and after independence grow into the great tree of American liberty, inspiring similar plantings in much of the world. It hardly seemed like a monumental event at the time. The burgesses met for less than a week, dealt with practical concerns like setting a tobacco price floor, relations with the Indians, and some criminal cases, and then departed one man down. Mr. Shelley of Smyths Hundred grew ill and passed way from the heat. Governor Yeardley and others also fell sick but survived. Representative government is frustrating today, but at least the survival rate has improved. Next year will mark the 400th anniversary of this hugely important, if rudimentary and tragedy-laced, beginning. It will present an opportunity to reflect on how far representative democracy has come and how far it still has to go. In addition to ceremonial events, the 2019 “American Evolution” Commemoration will feature highly substantive dialogues on the challenges confronting representative democracies today.

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