1621: Constitution for the Council and Assembly in Virginia

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Source: Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History, ed. Donald S. Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1998).

71 Constitution for the Council and Assembly in Virginia

Complete text taken verbatim from S. M. Bemiss, The Three Charters of the Virginia Company of London, with Seven Related Documents, 1606–1621 (Williamsburg: The University Press of Virginia, 1957), 126–28.

July 24, 1621

Although this document was written in England, it is included here because it was adopted at the behest of the colonists as to both form and content. In effect it legally ratifies what the colonists had established in the previous document [70], which in turn had been authorized by an order from England in 1618. The present document clarifies the precise structure and operation of Virginia’s local government, and it also reaffirms the subordination of that government to the council in England. The governmental system defined here parallels that established during the early years of most colonies, including those in New England. There is a governor, with a continuously sitting council to advise him. Once a year that council is joined by elected representatives from the towns and other localities to form a complete legislature, the General Assembly. See the introduction to the previous document [70] for further discussion of the historical context surrounding its enactment.

To all people to whom these presents shall come, be seen, or heard, the Treasurer, Council and Company of Adventurers and Planters of the City of London for the first colony in Virginia send greeting.

Know that we, the said Treasurer, Council and Company, taking into our careful consideration the present state of the said colony in 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, grievance, and oppression may be prevented and kept off as much as possible from the said colony, have thought fit to make our entrance by ordaining and establishing such supreme counsels as may not only be assisting to the Governor for the time being in administration of justice and the executing of other duties to his office belonging, but also by their vigilant care and prudence may provide as well for remedy of all inconveniences growing from time to time, as also for the advancing of increase, strength, stability, and prosperity of the said colony,

We, therefore, the said Treasurer, Council and Company, by authority directed to us from his Majesty under his great seal, upon mature deliberation do hereby order and declare that from hence forward there be two supreme councils in Virginia for the better government of the said colony as aforesaid. The one of which councils to be called the Council of State and whose office shall be chiefly assisting, with their care, advise, 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 those persons are here inserted, viz. Sir Francis Wyatt, Governor of Virginia; Captain Francis West; Sir George Yeardley, Knight; Sir William Newce, Knight, Marshal of Virginia; Mr. George Sandys, Treasurer; Mr. George Thorpe, Deputy of the College; Captain Thomas Newce, Deputy for the Company; Mr Christopher Davison, Secretary; Doctor Potts, physician to the company; Mr. Paulet; Mr. Leech; Captain Nathaniel Powell; Mr. Roger Smith; Mr. John Berkley; Mr. John Rolf; Mr. Ralph Hamer; Mr. John Pountus; Mr. Michael Lapworth; Mr. Harwood; Mr. Samuel Macocke. Which said councillors and council we earnestly pray and desire, and in his Majesty’s name strictly charge and command, that all factious partialities and sinister respects laid aside, they bend their care and endeavors to assist the said Governor first and principally in advancement and of the honor and service of Almighty God and the enlargement of His kingdom amongst those heathen people, and in erecting of the said colony in one obedience to his Majesty and all lawful authority from his Majesty’s derived, and lastly in maintaining the said people in justice and Christian conversation among themselves and in strength and hability to withstand their enemies. And this Council is to be always, or for the most part, residing about or near the said Governor, and yearly, of course, 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 and other particular plantation to be respectfully 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 always to the Governor a negative voice. And this General Assembly shall have free power to treat, consult, and conclude as well of all emergent occasions concerning public weal of the said colony and every part thereof as shall from time to time appear necessary or requisite. Wherein, as 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, manners of loyal and other administration of justice used in the realm of England, as near as may be even as ourselves by his Majesty’s letters patents are required; provided that no laws or ordinances made in the said General Assembly shall be and continue in force and validity unless the same shall be solemnly ratified and confirmed in a general greater court of the said court here in England and so ratified and 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 our court afterward shall bind the said colony unless they be ratified in like manner in their General Assembly.

In witness whereof, we have hereunto set our common seal the 24th day of (July) 1621, and in the year of the reign of our governor, Lord James by the [...] of God of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the [...], viz, of England, France, and Scotland the nineteenth and of Scotland the four and fiftieth.