An Ordinance and Constitution of the Virginia Company in England 24 July 1621


The first specific instance of genuine self-government in the English colonies was the meeting of the first House of Burgesses in Virginia in 1619. It convened in "James City" on July 30, 1619 and was dissolved on August 4, 1619. Twenty-two men were present, representing eleven geographic constituencies, together with the governor, Sir George Yeardley. They met at the church, organized themselves into an effective legislative body, and passed acts to regulate Indian trade, to govern personal conduct, to encourage silk production and a storage minimum of corn for each person, to discourage enticement of tenants and servants away from their masters, to establish a public "magazine," or warehouse, for tobacco, and other like measures aflecting the daily life of the settlers.

The precedent set by the establishment of a self- governing assembly in colonial Virginia was one of the most important and enduring political actions in American history. The instructions from the council in England authorizing the meeting are missing, but historians believe that the instructions reissued in 1621 were based upon the original instructions sent in 1619.

An Ordinance and Constitution of the Treasurer Council, and Company in England, for a Council of State and General Assembly.

  1. To all people, to whom these presents shall come, be seen, or heard, the treasurer, council, and company of adventurers and planters for the city of London for the first colony of Virginia, send greeting. Know ye, that we, the said treasurer, council, and company, taking into our careful consideration the present state of the said colony of Virginia, and intending by the divine assistance, to settle such a form of government there, as may be to the greatest benefit and comfort of the people, and whereby all injustice, grievances, and oppression may be prevented and kept off as much as possible, from the said colony, have thought fit to make our entrance, by ordering and establishing such supreme councils, as may not only be assisting to the governor for the time being, in the administration of justice, and the executing of other duties to this office belonging, but also, by their vigilant care and prudence, may provide, as well for a remedy of all inconveniences, growing from time to time, as also for advancing of increase, strength, stability, and prosperity of the said colony:

  2. We therefore, the said treasurer, council, and company, by authority directed to us from his majesty under the great seal, upon mature deliberation, do hereby order and declare, that, from hence forward, there shall be two supreme councils in Virginia, for the better government of the said colony aforesaid.

  3. The one of which councils, to be called the council of state (and whose office shall chiefly be assisting, with their care, advice, and circumspection, to the said governor) shall be chosen, nominated, placed, and displaced, from time to time, by us the said treasurer, council and company, and our successors: which council of state shall consist, for the present only of these persons, as are here inserted, viz., sir Francis Wyatt, governor of Virginia, captain Francis West, sir George Yeardley, knight, sir William Neuce, knight, marshal of Virginia, Mr. George Sandys, treasurer, Mr. George Thorpe, deputy of the college, captain Thomas Neuce, deputy for the company, Mr. Powlet, Mr. Leech, captain Nathaniel Powel, Mr. Christopher Davidson, secretary, Doctor Potts, physician to the company, Mr. Roger Smith, Mr. John Berkeley, Mr. John Rolfe, Mr. Ralph Hamer, Mr. John Pountis, Mr. Michael Lapworth, Mr. Harwood, Mr. Samuel Macock. Which said counsellors and council we earnestly pray and desire, and in his majesty's name strictly charge and command, that (all factions, partialities, and sinister respect laid aside) they bend their care and endeavours to assist the said governor; first and principally, in the advancement of the honour and service of God, and the enlargement of his kingdom against the heathen people; and next, in erecting of the said colony in due obedience to his majesty, and all lawful authority from his majesty's directions; and lastly, in maintaining the said people in justice and christian conversation amongst themselves, and in strength and ability to withstand their enemies. And this council, to be always, or for the most part, residing about or near the governor.

  4. The other council, more generally to be called by the governor, once yearly, and no oftener, but for very extraordinary and important occasions, shall consist for the present, of the said council of state, and of two burgesses out of every town, hundred, or other particular plantation, to be respectively chosen by the inhabitants: which council shall be called The General Assembly, wherein (as also in the said council of state) all matters shall be decided, determined, and ordered by the greater part of the voices then present; reserving to the governor always a negative voice. And this general assembly shall have free power, to treat, consult, and conclude, as well of all emergent occasions concerning the publick weal of the said colony and every part thereof, as also to make, ordain, and enact such general laws and orders, for the behoof of the said colony, and the good government thereof, as shall, from time to time, appear necessary or requisite;

  5. Whereas in all other things, we require the said general assembly, as also the said council of state, to imitate and follow the policy of the form of government, laws, customs, and manner of trial, and other administration of justice, used in the realm of England, as near as may be even as ourselves, by his majesty's letters patent, are required.

  6. Provided, that no law or ordinance, made in the said general assembly, shall be or continue in force or validity, unless the same shall be solemnly ratified and confirmed, in a general quarter court of the said company here in England, and so ratified, be returned to them under our seal; it being our intent to afford the like measure also unto the said colony, that after the government of the said colony shall once have been well framed, and settled accordingly, which is to be done by us, as by authority derived from his majesty, and the same shall have been so by us declared, no orders of court afterwards, shall bind the said colony, unless they be ratified in like manner in the general assemblies. In witness whereof we have hereunto set our common seal the 24th of July, 1621. . . .