Colonial history of Virginia: Formation of government





Special attention to the political history of the United States, is attached to New England, due to its great importance as the birthplace of American democracy. The other colonies, though founded on more aristocratic principles, were strongly affected by its example, and strove vigorously to gain similarly liberal institutions. The earliest of these, that of Virginia, was, by its first charter, under the supreme government of a council residing in England and appointed by the king, who likewise appointed a council of members of the colony, for its local administration. Thus all executive and legislative powers were directly controlled by the king, and no rights of self-government were granted the people. Virginia formed the only British colony in America of which the monarch thus retained the control. The colonial councils consisted of seven persons, who were to elect a president from their own number. John Smith was made president in 1608, the year after their arrival. In 1609 a new charter was given to the London Company, by which the English councilors were to have the privilege of filling vacancies by their own votes, and were empowered to appoint a governor for Virginia, whose powers were very despotic. The lives, liberty, and property of the colonists were placed almost at his sole disposal. The governor appointed, Lord Delaware, and his successor, Sir Thomas Dale, fortunately proved men of moderate and wise views. In 1612 still another charter was granted. This abolished the superior council, and transferred its powers to the company as a whole. But it failed to give any political rights to the colonists. Under the administration of George Yeardley, appointed governor in 1619, the first step towards popular rights was taken. Martial law, which had before prevailed, was abolished, and a colonial Assembly was convened, consisting of two burgesses or representatives from each of the eleven boroughs into which the colony was divided. But the measures passed by the Assembly were to be of no force until ratified by the company in England. In 1621 a written constitution was granted to the colony by the company, which ratified the arrangement made by Yeardley and added to it the highly-important provision that no orders of the company in England should have binding force upon the colony until ratified by the Assembly. Trial by jury was also established, and courts on the English model were organized. The privileges granted by this constitution were ever afterwards claimed as rights, and constituted a valuable preliminary towards complete civil liberty in Virginia. Soon afterwards the king, not relishing the freedom of debate manifested in the colonial Assembly, and the contests between the liberalists and the loyalists, with the growing prevalence of liberal sentiments, sought to overawe the Assemblies and thus control the elections of officers. As this proved inefficacious, a judicial decision against the corporation was obtained, and the company dissolved, the king taking direct control of the colony and erecting it into a royal government. Yet no effort was made to wrest from the colonists the right to a representative government, which the company had granted them. This privilege they ever afterwards retained, and the fact of its possession under royal auspices formed a valuable lesson for the future proprietaries, who could not hope to obtain colonists for their lands under a constitution more stringent that of Virginia, though they could not be expected to concede the full measure of freedom enjoyed in New England. The government was now administered by a governor and ten councillors, acting under the instructions of the king, but the colonial Assembly continued its annual sessions. In fact, Virginia, through its whole history, was the most loyal of the colonies. It was the one colony which had been settled largely by royalists and members of the Established Church, and the Virginians continued warmly loyal to the throne and the Church while Puritanism and republicanism were rapidly gaining the control in England. The intolerance in religious matters which New England displayed in favor of Puritanism was here manifested in favor of the Church of England, and the legislature ordered that no minister should preach except in conformity to the doctrines of that Church. After the formation of the Commonwealth in England the Virginian royalists recognized Charles II. as their sovereign, and it required the presence of a Parliamentary naval force in their harbors to bring them into a recognition of the Commonwealth. The news of the restoration of Charles II. was gladly received in the colony, and the friends of royalty quickly gained controlling power in the Assembly.

Yet the people soon had reason to regret the change of government. The policy of commercial restriction was made more stringent than ever, and Virginia suffered from it more severely than any of the other colonies. It was decided that all the export and import trade of the colonies should employ none but English vessels, and that tobacco, the principal product of Virginia, should be sent only to England. The trade between the colonies was likewise taxed for the benefit of England. Remonstrances against these oppressive laws proved of no avail, while discontent was also caused by large grants of Virginia territory to royal favorites. Meanwhile, the aristocratic party in the legislature had seriously abridged the liberties of the people. Religious intolerance increased, Quakers and Baptists were heavily fined, the taxes became oppressive, and the Assembly, instead of dissolving at the end of its term, continued in session, thus virtually abolishing the representative system of government. These were some of the evils which gave rise to the so-called "rebellion" of Nathaniel Bacon, and which caused so many of the planters to sustain him. His effort, however, proved of no efficacy in restoring the liberties of the people, and the oppressive system of government long continued.





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