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The Oldest Continuous Law-Making Body in the Western Hemisphere

The first General Assembly met in the “quire” (choir) of the newly-built wooden church at Jamestown in 1619. Following instructions from the Virginia Company of London, the sponsors of the colony, the Assembly’s main purpose was to introduce “just Laws for the happy guiding” of the people. It met as a single body and was made up of the Governor, Sir George Yeardley, his four councilors, and 22 burgesses chosen by the free, white male inhabitants of every town, corporation, and large plantation throughout the colony. Henceforth, settlers were able to participate in their own government and promote measures for the general good.

The Assembly’s work covered a wide range of business including commercial and economic arrangements for the colony, regulating moral offences, overseeing matters of religion, and relations with the Powhatan Indians. As well as acting as a legislative body, the Assembly served as a court and adjudicated between settlers and cases involving Indian peoples. The Assembly was an important part of the Great Reforms that swept away the existing military government and created a new democratic society based on the rule of law and consent of the governed.

In session from July 30 to August 4, 1619, the General Assembly was the first representative governing body to meet in North America, or anywhere in the Americas, and has continued to meet to the present day.

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