The Father of Representative Government in America – Abbeville Institute

It is not the purpose of this article to set forth any new discovery, nor to present any reflections which are especially startling or original.The purpose is, to emphasize a neglected fact of American history; a fact attested by ancient records, narrated in historical works, and familiar to historians; yet a fact the full significance of which is not generally recognized.
On the 30th day of July, 1619, the first Legislative Assembly in America convened at Jamestown, Virginia.
This Assembly marked the first victory of popular rights in the Western Hemisphere, and was in some respects, the most remarkable Assembly that ever convened. It was, not only the beacon light of freedom in America, but it, also, exercised an important reflex influence on the constitution of England, and is entitled to be included among the decisive events of history.
The facts connected with this important event have been sketched by Bancroft, Cooke, and other historians, but they have not taken the hold which they deserve upon the popular heart, and are not treasured, as they should be, in the memory of every American.
The most graphic picture which has been painted of this Assembly and its members will be found in the Virginia Magazine of History for July, 1894. In this magazine is given the address delivered before the Virginia Historical Society by Hon. William Wirt Henry, to whose researches I am indebted for many of the facts narrated in this paper, and from whose graphic description, I have obtained permission to quote several extracts.
This Assembly was not so much a victory in itself, as it was the reward or first fruits of a victory already achieved. The battle for representative government in Virginia had been waged since the foundation of the Colony. The battlefield had been transferred from Jamestown to London, and the Council Chamber of the Virginia Company of London was the scene of the conflict. The victory was won, not by the sword, but by peaceful and manly resistance to oppression, and by appeal to justice and reason. Had it been won by force of arms, and lighted up by the glare of war, it would have occupied a more dramatic place in history, and possibly its incidents would have been depicted in more glowing colors on the imagination and memory of posterity, yet its beneficial effects would, perhaps, have been lessened.
This was a victory of peace, and like the victories of peace, was far-reaching and creative in results, rather than resplendent in imagery.
Clearly to understand the contest which culminated in this peaceful victory of liberty, let us glance briefly at the previous condition of the Colony. When Virginia was settled in 1607, the colonists brought with them the civilization, the customs, and the instincts of Englishmen. They claimed, also, by charter, the rights of Englishmen; yet, the most valuable of these rights, the right of self-government, was denied them for twelve years. This right, however, cannot long be withheld from any people of Anglo-Saxon blood. It was first won by Virginia simply for the reason that Virginia was the first settled colony. It would have been won by Massachusetts, though perhaps in a different form, had Massachusetts been first settled. But the Pilgrims did not land at Plymouth Rock until more than one year after Virginia had won the first battle of freedom in America, and had paved the way for according representative government to the future colonies of England.
As soon as the colonists began to feel that their residence in America was permanent, they began to grow restive under the system of government which placed them under the absolute control of King James I. Finding the Colony a source of annoyance rather than profit, James I. in 1609, issued a second charter, nominally yielding to the requests and petitions of the “Virginia Company of Adventures,” the right of self-government.
This charter transferred to the Company the powers’ which had heretofore been reserved to the King. The colonists hailed this charter as a triumph, and flattered themselves that they had secured self-government. They soon found, however, that the powers of government were intercepted at London, and they had secured only a change of masters.
The Virginia Company of London consisted of a treasurer, who was, ex-officio, the presiding officer, and who would be styled in modern organizations, “The President” ; a council, who would now be called a “Board of Directors;” and a large number of “subscribers ” or stockholders. It was this commercial company to which James I. granted the power to control America
It is needless to recite that the colonists grew more and more dissatisfied with a system by which laws for their government were made without their knowledge or consent, and were administered by a governor, a council and other officers who were often the agents of tyranny and oppression. The demand for self-government first took the form of muttered discontent; growing stronger and better organized, it assumed the bolder form of petition for the redress of grievances. Those who know the Anglo-Saxon race, know that this is the precursor of revolution.
Fortunately for the colonists, they found, at this juncture, among the rulers placed over them by the London Company, a steadfast and influential friend, whose heart beat in sympathy with popular rights, and who was destined in a few years to be the instrument for establishing representative government in America.
Capt. George Yardley came to Virginia on the ship, “Deliverance,” in 1609. “He was,” says a distinguished writer, “a man of wealth and of well deserved influence.” He was descended from a Staffordshire family, known as the “Lords of Yardley.” One of his ancestors was a witness to the signature of King John to the first Magna Charta, June 15, 1215. Capt. George Yardley was a subscriber, or stockholder in the London Company. . He had served with distinction in Holland, in the war against Spain. A contemporary said of him, that he was “a soldier truly bred in the University of War in the Low Countries. ’ ’ He served as President of the Colonial Council until 1616, about which time he was married to Temperance West. In this year, Governor, Sir Thomas Dale, departing for England in company with John Rolfe and his wife Pocahontas, left Capt. Yardley as Deputy Governor. He was thus enabled by actual residence, and by official relations with the colonists, to form a just estimate of their needs, and a true conception of their rights. His character and modes of thought made him the friend and supporter of popular rights at the time when the colonists needed a judicious and faithful friend.
The storm was even then brewing among the commons of England which was destined in the next reign to deluge the island in blood, and to bring a king to the scaffold. The English people were beginning to mutter against royal prerogatives, and they listened with sympathy to the complaints of the colonists.
The Virginia Company was divided into two factions. The ruling party, known as the Court party was led by the President, or Treasurer, Sir Thomas Smith. This party looked upon the colonists as servants of the Company, employed to do its bidding, as entitled to no political rights, and as instruments to be used for the pecuniary benefit of the Company and its officers. It was, therefore, the policy of this party to govern the Colony by rigid regulations, and to permit the colonists no voice in the control of affairs.
The continued complaints of the colonists, and the evident justice of their cause, had aroused the sympathy of the more liberal members, and, had brought to their aid a few powerful friends who looked beyond the grievances of the colonists to the effect which the assertion of Virginia rights would produce on public sentiment in England. In addition to this the mismanagement of the Company’s affairs by the Court party, and the tyranny of its agents had injured the value of the Company’s property, had retarded and almost stopped immigration, and was beginning to drive many immigrants back to England.
A strong party known as the Virginia party was formed within the London Company, at the head of which were Shakespeare’s friend, the Earl of Southampton, Sir Edwin Sandys, and Mr. Nicolas Ferrar.
It is not surprising that the principles and qualities which made Yardley beloved by the colonists, made him distasteful to the President of the London Company, and to the Court party. Capt. Samuel Argall, a relative of President Smith, and his commercial agent, was appointed to supersede “the mild and popular Yardley.” This action was received by the colonists as a public calamity, and their indignation was freely expressed. In the end, however, it was fortunate for their interests.
The tyranny and rapacity of Argall soon became notorious, and hastened the overthrow of the Court party.
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