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The Rise of the Assembly

The Rise of the Assembly


Representation. The imperial system was not designed for provincial assemblies to become the central governing force, but in all provinces (most had become royal by the mid eighteenth century) this is precisely what happened. In 1619 the first local representative body in British America assembled in Virginia. It was called the House of Burgesses (a burgess was an English representative from a local borough or corporate town). The words of Virginia governor Sir George Yeardley in 1618 concerning the formation of this new representative government could just as well have been said of the other colonial governments that would follow: they were,

he said, to imitate and follow the laws and administration of justice used in the realm of England as near as may be. The members of local assemblies, from the first in Virginia to the last in Georgia, saw their representative duties, even as they often conflicted with the governor and his council, as well within an English construct. Local assemblies assumed their powers from the body of English common law. This reliance on English precedent was intensified after the Glorious Revolution in 1688 when provincial assemblies slowly began to see themselves as reflections of Parliament. It was at this juncture that the various colonial representative bodies began to raise their own self-perception whereby they obtained what has been called negotiated authorities. Such authorities would later strengthen their resolve to bypass Parliament and appeal directly to the king. They began, in other words, to see themselves as little Parliaments.

Power of the Purse. Of the powers the local assemblies had, none were more relevant to eventual royal decline than the power of the purse. In this vein historians have at times emphasized that the most important object of financial control was the governors salary. As long as his income was at their disposal they could maintain the upper hand. This has been shown to be an oversimplification. Governors salaries were often from sources other than local appropriations. Evidence has shown that even when pay was dependant on local legislation, rarely (although there were exceptions) was it withheld. The real power of the purse lay in the ability on a wider scale to control public finance through taxation. Assemblies gained primary position in colonial money matters, which translated into control over public services as well as military, ecclesiastical, and judicial concerns. Again, this was not a break with English precedent. Ever since the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1624 had assumed the right to tax, the Crown proceeded to authorize the practice in all future royal colonies. Tensions arose between the Crown and the assemblies when the latter began to replicate the House of Commonss efforts to gain sole authority (as opposed to the governor or council) over appropriation initiatives. By the time of the Glorious Revolution the English House of Commons had won this right. In time the provincial assemblies would do the same.


Jack P. Greene, Negotiated Authorities: Essays in Colonial Political and Constitutional History (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994);

Greene, The Quest for Power: The Lower Houses of Assembly in the Southern Royal Colonies, 1689-1776 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963);

Leonard Woods Labaree, Royal Government in America: A Study of the British Colonial System before 1783 (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1958);

Carl Ubbelohde, The American Colonies and the British Empire, 1607-1763 (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968).

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