The Grand Assembly of Virginia Demands Its Right of Consent

Dateline: Virginia, April 5, 1647: This is (probably) the first recorded time that the Virginia Grand Assembly demanded that Parliament back in England seeks Virginia’s consent before policies are imposed. A foundation for the Declaration of Independence in 1776?

This is the plenary session of the Assembly: the Governor, his Council, and the Burgesses. Hence, the Grand Assembly.  This is not a meeting of a small group of men.

English Merchants produce a (probable) fraudulent document supposedly from the English Parliament that states the Dutch are not welcome in Virginia. The colonists reject the document as a fraud and open the door to trade with the Dutch.

The Grand Assembly of Virginia asserts its right to trade with the Dutch, because it is just. Further, no law from England should impede the colonists precisely because Parliament would not commit such an injustice.

The king here is Charles I, who reigned from 1625-1649.

Modern transcription begins:

Whereas many and most absolute necessities have given cause to several late Grand Assemblies to establish sundry [various] solemn Acts and publish declarations thereupon to invite and encourage the Dutch nation to a trade and commerce with the inhabitants of the colony, which now for some few years they have enjoyed with such content, comfort and relief to their being and subsistence.

Now forasmuch as rumors and reports are raised and spread abroad that by a late ordinance of the Parliament of England all strangers [foreigners] are prohibited trade with any of the English plantations, which we conceive to be the invention of some English merchants on purpose to affright and expel the Dutch and make way for themselves to monopolize not only our labours and fortunes, but even our persons, which we may with so much sense of smart deliver, in that with the confidence of truth we may aver that the monopolize contracts and of projects of our commodity designed upon and against us by the English merchants for false ends [purpose] and to ruin have cost us more in charges of Assembly than would have sufficiently fortified the country with the advantage of many a profitable nursery for manufactures.

In which report we have cause to fear the hand that has already been so heavy upon us with charity enough to doubt a practice from those whose heads have been over-busily and restlessly employed to gain their ends [purposes] upon us.

For we may not presume on such a thought that the most honourable houses of Parliament would conclude us in a case of right and privilege granted unto us by ancient Charter, (Vidzt [namely]): that is should be lawful for the planters to entertain trade with any nation or people in amity with his Majesty, especially without hearing of the parties principally interested, which infringes no less the liberty of the Colony and a right of dear esteem to free born persons; (Vidzt): that no law should be established within the kingdom of England concerning us without consent of a Grand Assembly here.

Or in case the most honourable houses have been abused and by the wily and specious pretences of merchants or seamen trading to the Colony been circumvented to the passing of such an ordinance, we are assured the justness of our cause will find admittance and vindication from that honourable Council: The rights, immunities, and privileges of our Charter by as due a claim belonging to us, as is the wages of an hireling that has labored for it, for they only gave us invitation and were the conditional reward & guerdon [recompense or reward] propounded for out undertaking in those rugged paths of plantation.

But having neither received prohibition or intimation concerning the said trade, we can interpret no other thing from the report than a forgery of avaricious persons whose sickle has been ever long in our harvest already.

Howsoever if the Act were illegal (though on the contrary we are warranted by right and therefore by law) we must like creatures even of sense provide for our own safeties and subsistence.

In order whereupon, we do again invite the Dutch nation and again publish and declare all freedom and liberty to them to trade within the colony and do oblige ourselves and the whole Colony to defend them with our uttermost power and ability in the peaceable fruition thereof either by reparation from the estates of those who shall offer them any violence or cause them any disturbance or otherwise and shall proceed against them as oppugners [sic] of our undoubted rights and privileges.

Transcription ends.

It turns out that if this specific document presented by the merchants was a fraud, then the next one coming from Parliament after the king was beheaded was not a fraud, as seen in Virginia Governor Sir William Berkeley’s speech and the Assembly’s Declaration of 1651. It restricted the colonists from trading with whomever they pleased.

The most interesting words in the document above: “[N]o law should be established within the kingdom of England concerning us without consent of a Grand Assembly here.”

Even this early, the baby colony asserts its independence based on the simple justice of providing for its safety and subsistence. A man has a fundamental right to survive and thrive, and trade with the Dutch may enable him to achieve it. A little competition in the free market is what’s needed.

The colonists don’t exactly deny the authority of Parliament back in England, but they doubted it could reasonably demand them to deny their fundamental liberty.


Gateway Ancestors of Virginia

Members of Virginia House of Burgesses 1619-1660


Journal of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619-1658/9, ed. by H. R. McIlwaine, Classic Reprint Series (orig. Richmond: 1915).

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