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The Sweaty Beginning of Virginia’s General Assembly

First meeting of the General Assembly in 1619.

On a sweltering July day about 400 years ago, a group of white settlers met in a chapel to come up with laws to govern the nascent British colony in Virginia.

That day is being remembered on Tuesday with pomp, circumstance, and a controversial appearance by President Donald Trump. But historical records suggest Virginia’s first legislative session was a far humbler affair.

Virginia Company of London called for a General Assembly in a charter it dispatched alongside Sir George Yeardley when he arrived in Jamestown in April 1619, with an eye for improving local governance and giving white, free landholders a greater say in their own affairs.

The Assembly met during what one diarist, John Porry,  calleda “torpid summer.”

One man died and others, including Governor George Yeardley, became ill, according to historian Warren Billings, author of The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Documentary History of Virginia, 1606-1700.

“You can imagine how stifling it all was,” Billings said.

The group first approved the Virginia Company’s charter, which allowed the Assembly to exist.

It went on to pass  a series of lawsdealing with everything from the price of tobacco to the mandatory planting of mulberry trees (“six mulberry trees at the least and as many more as he shall think convenient and as his virtue and industry shall move him to plant.”) Other laws banned trading firearms to Native Americans, and forbid women from marrying without permission from either her parent or her “master.”

Billings said the meeting was closer to a city council meeting than to today’s statehouse.

“That’s what the assembly was first empowered to do: to enact local ordinances to deal with issues on the ground that you couldn’t wait 18 months or two years from London on what to do,” Billings said.

The session lasted just six days, from July 30 to August 4, 1619. Later that month, enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, setting the stage for over two centuries of human bondage.

Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation president James Horn said the arrival of the ship -- and the institution of slavery that followed -- was deeply intertwined with the democratic experiment of that year.

“Arguably, then, 1619 marks the inception of the most important political development in American history, the rise of democracy, and the emergence of what would in time become one of the nation's greatest challenges: the corrosive legacy of racial stereotypes that continues to afflict our society today,“ Horn wrote in “1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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