The Virginia Colonists Make Requests of the Privy Council

Dateline: Virginia, February 1623: Thirty-two men sign this letter to the Privy Council (King James I’s closest advisers).

Governor Francis Wyatt and the Assembly request of the Privy Council several things:

  • Sole importation of tobacco (a monopoly) to increase the king’s customs money;
  • Not to pay customs above a third of their labors;
  • Customs may be reduced to a five in a hundred;
  • Don’t believe the false report that we have neglected houses and provision of sustenance;
  • After the Indian massacre of 1622, do not subject us to another Company;
  • The Governors sent over here may not have absolute power, but restrained by this Council;
  • Don’t send over inexperienced assistants who may offer advice that seems good, but proves otherwise in reality;
  • Too much change over among Governors is disadvantageous for the Colony;
  • Retain the liberty of the General Assembly, for the public good.

The Indian Massacre of 1622 wiped out more than one-quarter of the colonists. This bankrupted the Virginia Company and prompted the Assembly to seek a reprieve from the control of any other company.

Modernized transcription begins:

Right Honourable,

We have received divers [various] letters from your lordships to the Governor and Council in particular others to the Colony in general, with copies of your orders from the Company and lastly other orders brought over by Mr. Povey [Pory].

By them all we understand the princely care that his Majesty has of this plantation [of Virginia], for which we return our humblest thanks and earnestly solicit the continuance of his favor.

By the first we understood of his Majesty’s remitting of three pence in shillings in the customs of his tobacco and of granting unto us the sole importation, than which there is nothing that will give us more life or a speedier advancement to this Colony, for little or nothing can be expected from poverty to which the mean [average or even shabby] price thereof and great charge of war have reduced us; neither have we in this estate [state or condition] wherein we are the means to fortified nor to set up those staple commodities which require a long expectation of profit, all the fruits of our labor amounting to no more (if so much) than will clothe and feed us.

We therefore humbly entreat your lordships that you will take commiseration of us and be a means to his Majesty to confirm his former intention, with all to take into your honourable considerations that heavy burden in paying for customs above a third of our labors which we desire may be reduced to fine in the hundred according to his Majesty’s gracious letters patents.

We further understand by your lordships’ letters that we have been accused by one that came from hence of neglect of fortifications of building of houses and providing of sustenance, against whom we protest that his relation [narration] as in other things, so in this, is untrue and slanderous.

We have in due submission to your lordships published your orders sent over by Mr. Povey [Pory], whereby we understand his Majesty’s intention in changing the Government of this Colony, we are ignorant of the dangers and ruins that might have befallen us by the continuance of the former;

Neither have we anything to accuse them with that have swayed our affairs; since the expiration of Sir Thomas Smyth’s authority, our slavery having since been converted to freedom, and we cherished under a just and moderate government;

Neither had they or we been subject to censure, if the bitter effects of the massacre had not clouded their zeal and our endeavours, yet howsoever it pleases his Majesty to dispose of us, it is our humble desire that the Governors that are sent over may not have absolute authority, but may be restrained as formerly by the consent of this Council, which title we desire may be retained as formerly by the consent of this Council, and not converted to the name of assistants, some inconveniences we have found by the strict limitation of the Governor and Council by instructions out of England, since insofar a distance and not perfect knowledge of the Country that may seem good in advise, which may by accident prove otherwise in execution;

Neither hold we it fit that any main project be set afoot which has not from hence approbation; besides we suppose that the short continuance of Governors in their places is very disadvantageous to the Colony, who for the first year are raw in experience and for the most part in ill disposition of health through the change of the climate; the second year they begin to understand the affairs of the Country; and the third provide for their return.

But above all we humbly entreat your lordships that we may retain the liberty of our general Assembly, than which nothing can more conduce to our satisfaction or public utility.

Thus submitting ourselves and our affairs to your honourable patronage, we humbly take our leaves.

Wholly to be disposed by your lordships

Francis Wyatt [knight and governor]

James City

The last of February 1623

Francis West, George Yeardly, George Sandys, Roger Smythe, Raphe [Ralph] Hamor, J. Pountis, Sam. Mathews, Will Peirce, Will Tucker, Isaac Madison, Nicolas Martian, Jabez Whitaker, Isaac Chaplin, Nath. Bass, Clement Dilke, John Utie, Sam Sharpe, Rich Stephens, Nathaniel Caussey, John Chew, Richard Biggs, Edward Gryndon, Henry Watkins, Thomas Marlott, Robert Adams, Gabriel Holland, Rawley Crosham, Edw. Balyney, Richard Kingsbill, John Willcocks, Luke Boys {Boice]

To the Right Honorable our very good lords, the lords of his Majesty’s Most Honorable Privy Council

Transcription ends.

It is no coincidence that the General Assembly argues for their liberty and the Constitutional Founders 170 years later argued for the freedom of the legislative branch found in Article One of the Constitution.

It begins in these earliest documents (and elsewhere).


Members of Virginia House of Burgesses 1619 to 1660

Gateway Ancestors of Virginia


Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619-1658/59, ed. H. R. McIlwaine (Richmond: 1915).

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