Capital of Virginia
Jamestown was the first successful English settlement in North America and the seat of colonial government in Virginia between 1607 and 1699. Governors-general officiated there; courts sat there; the oldest representative legislature in the Western Hemisphere, the General Assembly, met there. In Jamestown, habits of self-rule rooted and blossomed into political traditions that Americans honor to this day. The town waxed, waned, and is no more, although its site is a nationally recognized monument to the beginnings of the nation and its ways of popular governance.
In April 1606, King James I granted some highly placed public men and London merchants letters patent to settle on the North American mainland. Organizing as the Virginia Company, the patentees conceived Jamestown as a permanent mercantile outpost whose occupants harmonized profitably with the Indians rather than as a little England in America. They gathered supplies and colonists and dispatched them in December 1606 to the region of the Chesapeake Bay. The ship convoy reached its destination four months later. Scouting for a suitable location, the leaders chose an island-like peninsula that jutted into a river the English named the "James." The setting was readily defensible, lying well inland from the river's mouth and boasting a narrow isthmus that joined it to the mainland. Those advantages hardly offset the lack of potable water and the drawback of the marshes that constituted much of the terrain, however. Nevertheless, from the moment the English first alighted on March 13, 1607, until they abandoned Jamestown 90 years later, they cherished the place as the colony's principal settlement.
From its first days to its last, nothing about Jamestown ever worked according to anyone's expectations. Everything associated with sustaining the settlement throughout the years of company management was near to overwhelming. Edgy from the outset, relations with the Powhatan Indians quickly worsened, dashing prospects of a relationship of mutual trust and respect. In the midst of what would be the worst drought in seven centuries, the settlers threw up a fortified encampment; but with water exceedingly scarce, raising crops or even maintaining a sustainable garden was next to impossible. The Powhatan did not want to trade away scarce foodstuffs. Death took colonists from disease, debilitation, and starvation. Survivors devoured supplies and produced little of value in return, despite prodding from London or the imposition of martial law. The distance between London and Jamestown contributed to the difficulties resulting from divided governance and lackluster leadership. Backers reorganized the company in 1609 and 1612 and secured the income from a Crown-sanctioned national lottery, but those reforms produced neither solvency nor profits, and by 1617 the company verged on collapse. Unwilling to concede defeat, the stockholders yet again tried to salvage the colony and their investment.
Company officials scrapped their original plan in favor of a scheme that would transplant as much of traditional English society as circumstances in Virginia permitted. Set forth in a series of documents, the so-called Great Charter of 1618, the plan was intended to reform land tenures, to improve local administration, and to replace the much-hated martial law with English common law and a more representative resident government. A new governor-general, Sir George Yeardley, also received orders to convene a general assembly comprising him, company-appointed councilors of state, and burgesses elected by Virginia's freemen. That body would sit annually and act as a court of justice. It also received power to enact ordinances that addressed local needs or implemented directives from London, any of which the governor might veto or the company might reject. Taking up his post, Yeardley issued the call, and on July 30, 1619, the first General Assembly convened at the church in Jamestown—the only building in the colony large enough to accommodate such a gathering. By the time the members concluded their business and left town four days later, they had ushered in a precedent for the representative self-governance that evolved as the General Assembly passed from a corporate appendage to a little Parliament.
The reforms failed to rescue the company from its dire financial situation, which had deteriorated to such a degree that factional animosities caused King James I to withdraw the lottery, thus ending the company's one steady source of cash. A second fatal stroke came from the Indians, who set off the Anglo-Powhatan War of 1622-1632 that initially killed one-third of the colony's population. Finally, intransigent investors could not resolve their disputes, thus forcing the Crown to dissolve the company; in 1625, King Charles I proclaimed Virginia a royal dominion.
Dissolving the Virginia Company loosed changes that forever altered the General Assembly and Jamestown. Turning Virginia into a Crown colony effectively undercut the assembly's constitutional underpinnings, although the settlers were left to govern themselves virtually unnoticed for the next half century—a freedom that had enormous implications for the development of self-government. The early royal governors-general continued to summon the General Assembly, annually even as they and prominent colonists lobbied Charles I to sanction its right to exist. Such persistence bore fruit in 1639 after the king named Sir Francis Wyatt governor-general and authorized him to convene the General Assembly yearly. By that time, the body was already well on its way to being Virginia's principal lawgiver and more closely resembled Parliament than when it was merely a company adjunct. The legislation it passed touched increasingly broader areas of colonial life as the members arrogated greater powers to the body and as they became more adept politicians.
A major step toward the transformation of the assembly into a little Parliament occurred early in the tenure of Wyatt's successor, Sir William Berkeley. In 1643, the members responded positively to his urging that he and his councilors should sit separate from the burgesses, and so the General Assembly became bicameral. Thereafter, the assembly gained ever-widening authority as Berkeley made common cause with the great planters who dominated both chambers and also local government. Moreover, disruptions caused by the Anglo-Powhatan War of 1644-1646, civil war in England, and nearly a decade of parliamentary rule following Berkeley's overthrow in 1652 not only increased the assembly's importance but also heightened assemblymen's sense of their importance to the colony. Therefore, by the time Berkeley returned to office in 1660, the assembly's transit to a Parliament in miniature was complete. Berkeley accepted those realities, encouraging further aggrandizement—the General Assemblies of the 1660s and 1670s enjoyed powers that exceeded those of Parliament in London. These changes escaped the Crown's notice until Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 compelled royal officials to attend to Virginia (which they had basically ignored since the 1620s); for the remainder of the century, London worked to systematically erode the assembly's independence.
As for Jamestown, the changing nature of the colony and of the General Assembly resulted in numerous alterations in the townscape. Surveyor-General William Claiborne laid out New Town east of the fort in 1621; the intent was to make urban living more attractive, but progress was slow—the English and the Indians remained in a state of war, thus the colonists justifiably feared for their safety and preferred the perceived security of the original settlement. The return of peace in 1632 allowed Governor-General Sir John Harvey to launch an ambitious program of development that was only partly realized before he was driven from office and replaced by Sir Francis Wyatt in 1639. Wyatt, too, was under royal command to make Jamestown more attractive, but he was in office only two years, and his successes were modest. Sir William Berkeley arrived in 1641 with orders similar to Wyatt's. By the time Berkeley surrendered Virginia to parliamentary rule in 1652, he and the General Assembly had enacted legislation that gave Jamestown the look and feel of an English village. His successors lacked his vision or his determination, so no further progress was made until he returned to office in 1662. Armed with new instructions he received from King Charles II, Berkeley launched a major, costly program of urban renewal that aimed at nothing less than a complete overhaul of Jamestown—from its wharves, to its taverns, its housing, and its public buildings.
A purpose-built statehouse was high on his agenda because Jamestown had never had a capitol. The General Assembly sat for many of its early years in the church, but the mixing of the secular with the sacred was not entirely satisfactory, nor was the lack of a permanent place for the Council of State to meet between legislative sessions. After the General Assembly became bicameral, the space it needed expanded as the councilors and the burgesses now sat apart from each other. Consequently, the habit of each body sitting in private residences or in alehouses became common practice after 1643, although many assemblymen regarded the making of the colony's law in taverns an affront to their dignity. So did Governor Berkeley. The assembly moved into a partially finished capitol in 1665; another decade was to pass before the building was completed.
By the mid-1670s, Jamestown had reached the peak of its development as a metropolis and a capital—and never quite matched Berkeley's expectations. Jamestonians were indifferent, if not hostile, to urban renewal; taxpayers in other parts of Virginia resented the increases in their rates to support the rebuilding of Jamestown. Two wars with the Dutch slowed the work and added to the tax burden. Berkeley, now in failing health and with diminishing political instincts, lost interest. These conditions across Virginia were some of the sparks that set off Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. Rebel forces drove Berkeley from the capital in September 1676 and set the town afire.
The fire destroyed Jamestown, but the question of what do with the remains arose even as the embers of its burned buildings chilled. Voters in remoter parts of Virginia petitioned the General Assembly to relocate the capital to a more central location, but opposition from Jamestonians and the Crown swiftly eliminated that possibility. Although sheltering the residents and fixing the public buildings were obvious concerns, the reconstruction progressed slowly. By 1679, enough private dwellings had been restored to afford temporary accommodations for the General Assembly; however, in the interim, the assemblymen had reverted to their habit of meeting in taverns. Nearly twenty years passed before the statehouse was restored sufficiently that it could be used for meetings of governance—largely because the repairs fell hostage to politics. Legislators were reluctant to fund the restoration in one fell swoop from fear that raising the necessary taxes in bad economic times might spawn another Bacon's Rebellion. Moreover, their foot-dragging was a tactic used to confound post-rebellion governors-general—who were under strict royal instructions to rein in the independence of the General Assembly. Repairs to the statehouse were finally finished in the mid-1690s, and the town looked much as it had before the Baconians set it ablaze. Nevertheless, Jamestown's days numbered fewer than anyone associated with its resurrection could have foreseen. Another fire swept the town in October 1698. Governor-General Francis Nicholson subsequently persuaded the General Assembly to move the capital inland to Middle Plantation, out of which arose the city of Williamsburg. Thus, no reason was left to restore Jamestown, and it slipped beneath the soil following its abandonment.
- Jamestown and the Founding of the Nation. Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1991. .
- A Little Parliament: The Virginia General Assembly in the Seventeenth Century. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2004. .
- The Papers of Francis Howard, Baron Howard of Effingham, 1643-1695. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1989. , ed.
- Sir William Berkeley and the Forging of Colonial Virginia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004. .
- The Papers of Sir William Berkeley, 1605-1677. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2007. , ed.
- A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. New York: Basic Books, 2005. .
- Historic Jamestowne. http://historicjamestowne.org (accessed August 22, 2009).
- Jamestown: The Buried Truth. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006. .
- Speakers and Clerks of the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1643-1776. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1981. .
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