Friday, August 3, 2012

Colonial Government in Virginia

File:Old Capitol Building - Williamsburg.png
The Capitol in Williamsburg -- meeting place of the Governor's Council and the House of Burgesses prior to the Revolution.

Here is a brief description of the governance of Virginia during her colonial days, prior to the Revolution.  Note the governor and council were not elected -- the only elected officials in Virginia prior to independence were the members of the lower house, the House of Burgesses. The following selection describes this governmental structure with a particular emphasis on Cumberland County, Virginia:

"The governor and the colonial council were important in their role as the executive body of the colony. It was these appointed men who exercised veto power over legislation produced by the House, appointed local officials in all of the counties, and even acted as a supreme court of appeals for the colony. The crown appointed the governor, or more frequently in the eighteenth century, lieutenant governor. The Governor’s Council “had twelve members appointed for life by the king”[1]from the prominent political families of Virginia. No resident of Cumberland ever occupied either office in the days of royal rule. When the governor and council dealt with CumberlandCounty, it was to appoint and command. Despite its separation from the county in miles and membership, it was this Executive Council that nominated the local officials of the county on the recommendation of the county court, of course. With the erection of the new County of Cumberland, for instance, the Council ordered on 27 April 1749: “That a new Commission of the Peace issue for CumberlandCounty, and that the following Persons be in it, viz.: John Fleming, Daniel Stoner, George Carrington...”[2] Thus it was that all of the local officials, of whom there is much more to relate, received their office and authority in colonial Virginia. Despite the absence of Cumberlanders on the Council and in their governor’s chair, the recommendation of the county court was nearly always accepted: the Council and the local courts both desired the same planter class in positions of authority.

House of Burgesses

The other organ of colonial authority, and justly the more famous, is the House of Burgesses. This elected assembly of representatives legislated for the colony from its creation in 1619. Each county was entitled to two Burgesses,[3]elected by the freeholders of the county he would represent. Thus, the House of Burgesses not only represented the voice of the landowners in the colonial government, but also serves as the only sphere of electoral and nearly republican politics in the royal colony. Several historians have executed insightful studies into the voting habits of Virginia freeholders, and the character and stability, or lack thereof, of a county’s voting habits can often give the historian unique insights into politics of the day.

Elections for the House of Burgesses were not a regular occurrence: they happened on the occasion of the arrival of a new governor, and at the command of the governor whenever he may see fit to dissolve the body. “By-elections” could be conducted, of course, to fill a seat made vacant by death or resignation, but general elections were far more significant. “There were eight general elections between 1750 and 1774,”[4]the years that Cumberlandsent representatives to the House.

The laws governing elections remained rather stable after the revision of 1736 and stipulated that freeholders, those eligible to vote, were to be defined as a white male over twenty-one years of age who possessed “one hundred acres of unimproved land or twenty-five acres with a house and plantation.”[5] Eligibility to vote in an election depended upon this land ownership, not physical residence in the county. Despite the written limitation of franchise to these freeholders, “by law and practice freehold status came to encompass more than outright ownership of property and meant that both actual owners and holders of life leases could vote.”[6] After 1762, the requirement for one hundred unimproved acres was reduced to fifty, and provision was made for those owning a house and lot in an incorporated town.[7] This meant that a significant number of the white males of Virginiacounties could typically vote: “at most 15 percent of th[e] white population.”[8] CumberlandCounty, in 1763, had 586 freeholders out of 704 white tithables, an impressive 83.2%.[9] In Cumberland’s Southside neighbor, AmeliaCounty, for comparison, some 76% of 831 adult white males were eligible to vote in 1749, going down to approximately 55% of 1,243 in 1768.[10] Thus, although voter eligibility was certainly strict by the standards of the twenty-first century, they were quite open and universal for the day. Indeed, historians have often debated whether this was a democracy or an aristocracy.[11] Nevertheless, while franchise may have included a majority of white males, the office holders were almost universally a much more select group.

The election of the burgesses was one of the more colorful and memorable occasions in Virginia’s colonial politics. Responsibility for holding elections fell to the sheriff of the county, for “writs of election for the choice of the two burgesses from the county was to be sent to the sheriff, and he was to send a copy to each minister in the county, giving the time and place of the elections.”[12] The voting would take place at the county courthouse with the sheriff presiding – indeed, the voting began and closed at his discretion. Each voter publicly indicated for whom he cast his vote, after taking an oath that he was, indeed, a freeholder of that county. After 1762, the voting was “to be viva voce or by show of hands unless a poll was demanded.” In the event of a written vote, “the sheriff was to open a poll book listing the candidates and the voters were to write their names under the person for which they were voting.”[13] Much is written of the practice of “treating voters” – the practice of liberally giving away alcohol at the polls to“sweeten” the voter’s judgment.[14]

[1]Lucille Griffith, The Virginia House of Burgesses 1750-1774 (University, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1970), 15.
[2] W. L. Hall, ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, Vol. V, 1739-1754 (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1978, 2nd edition), 284.
[3]Each city or borough, viz. Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Norfolk, and the College of William & Mary each elected one Burgess.
[4]Griffith, The Virginia House of Burgesses,45.
[5]Ibid., 49. Also, see IV Hening 524.
[6]John Gilman Kolp, Gentlemen and Freeholders: Electoral Politics in Colonial Virginia (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 43.
[7] Albert Ogden Porter, County Governmentin Virginia: A Legislative History, 1607-1904 (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1966), 55-56.
[8]Kolp, Gentlemen and Freeholders, 43.
[9]Griffith, The Virginia House of Burgesses,167.
[10]Kolp, Gentlemen and Freeholders, 45.
[11]Cf. Robert E. and B. Katherine Brown, Virginia 1705-1786: Democracy or Aristocracy?(East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1964)
[12]Porter, County Governmentin Virginia,55.
[14]See Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 111-113; Griffith, The Virginia House of Burgesses, 53; Kolp, Gentlemen and Freeholders, 28-32."

[From,"To declare for an Independency": Cumberland County, Virginia and the Revolution: 1749-1789 / by Thomas Eric Cole;]

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