The House of Burgesses

Although many differences separated Spain and France from England, the factor that contributed most to different paths of colonization was the form of their government.

Spain and France had absolute monarchies but Britain had a limited monarchy. In New France and New Spain, all authority came from the Crown to the settlers with no input from below.

An absolute monarchy is a state in which the monarch has sovereign power and controls all aspects of government without being checked by any representative assemblies. A limited or constitutional monarchy is a state in which the power of the monarch is checked by other constitutionally sanctioned institutions, such as a representative.

The English kings who ruled the 13 original colonies reserved the right to decide the fate of their colonies, but not alone. The colonists drew upon their claims to traditional English rights and insisted on raising their own representative assemblies—The Virginia House of Burgesses, the first popularly elected legislative assembly in the American colonies.

The House of Burgesses first assembly met on July 30, 1619, in the church at Jamestown. Present were Governor Yeardley, Council, and 22 burgesses representing 11 plantations. Burgesses were elected representatives. Only white men who owned a specific amount of property were eligible to vote for Burgesses.

Modeled after the English Parliament, the House of Burgesses would meet at least once to decide local laws and determine local taxation.

King James I, a believer in the divine right of monarchs, attempted to dissolve the assembly, but the Virginians would have none of it. They continued to meet on a yearly basis to decide local matters.

The tradition established by the House of Burgesses was extremely important to colonial development. Each new English colony demanded its own legislature in turn.

Source: The House of Burgesses
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