Happy ‘Great Charter’ Day

No, not the Magna Carta, but one that should be just as important to Virginians, and, perhaps, all Americans.

In 1618, the colony of Virginia had seen very troubled times. Tobacco had begun to stabilize the economy, but the death rate still exceeded the birth rate by far, and colonists lived in fear of their government. The Lawes Divine Morall and Martiall imposed exceedingly harsh punishments upon what we might consider minor infractions. Despite the eventual peace reached as a result of the Pocahontas/Smith/Rolfe affair, the relationship between the Council and the surrounding Indian tribes was strained (though, apparently, more than a few of the lower colonists had no problem whatsoever in deserting Jamestown for native pastures).

The Virginia Company back in London had great trouble in recruiting adventurers, as people in England were reading the propaganda literature returning from the colonies with great skepticism. Furthermore, the Company itself was dealing with in-fighting over the direction of the Virginia Colonies, the logistics of the Bermuda Colony, the monopolization of the tobacco industry, and the expansion of fisheries and the fur trade.

Thomas Smythe — who eventually resigned as the Company’s treasurer over embezzlement charges — wanted more control.

Edwin Sandys wanted to devolve power locally.

Fortunately for Virginia, Edwin Sandys won.

The Virginia Company Instructions to George Yeardley (the colony’s new governor), was signed by the Company on November 18, 1618. While not signed by the king himself — as were the three charters before — it carried with it the force of law.

The Charter has been credited with beginning the elected representation, self-government, and the General Assembly in Virginia. Although there is no such explicit instruction in this charter for Gov. Sir Yeardley to establish a General Assembly, it is likely Gov. Sir Yeardley carried with him a separate commission granting him authority to do so, for in the Virginia Company’s instructions to Gov. Francis Wyatt nearly three years later, James I refers to “a former commission granted” when describing the governor’s negative over the General Assembly.

But even if the Great Charter was not itself the official documentary beginnings of the General Assembly, its importance cannot be understated. The prospect of private land ownership — rather than essentially foraging on Company land — was now granted in the amount of 50 acres to any who could pay his way across the Atlantic, and an additional 50 for every other new colonist paid for at his expense. The prospect of ownership encouraged many to abandon England for America, even if it meant seven-years’ indenture first. It meant they could work the land how they saw fit, not how the Company in London thought necessary.

The Charter also confirmed and ordained the establishment of Virginia’s first college in Henrico, which was established for educating Indian children “in true religion, moral virtue, and civility, and for other godly [sic] uses.”

Finally, it replaced the Lawes Divine Morall and Martiall with English Common Law, giving the colonists consistent expectations of their legislators, executives, and judiciaries.

In a word, while tobacco served to rescue a floundering economy, The Great Charter served to rescue a floundering government. In both cases, this was done by recognizing that government — and industry — work best when managed closer to the people, not centralized and bureaucratized in a distant capital.

  • I remember this from, I don’t know, 6th grade? It seems each time Andrew puts his fingers to the keyboard I learn or re-learn something.

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