It is rare that we celebrate events from 396 years ago in a country that is 239 years old. But July 30, 1619 was no ordinary day. It was the day America elected her first leader. A full 113 years before the birth of George Washington, the father of our country, John Pory was elected assembly speaker in the Colony of Virginia. It happened in Jamestown, in the choir room of the local church. They called it the New World House of Burgess. Earlier that year, the London Company, which had established the settlement 12 years earlier, directed Virginia Governor Sir George Yeardley (appointed by England) to summon a “General Assembly” elected by the settlers, with every free adult voting. The 11 Jamestown boroughs produced 22 representatives who chose Pory as their first elected leader. On July 30, the House of Burgess (an English word for “citizens”) convened for the first time.
In addition to electing Master Pory, the assembly passed several laws, which required the confirmation of the London Company. These laws included one requiring tobacco to be sold for at least three shillings per pound, prohibition against gambling, drunkenness, and idleness, and a measure that made Sabbath Day observance mandatory. And with that, democracy was born in the New World.
We know that Mr. Pory was an administrator, traveler, and author. He is considered to be the first news correspondent in English-language journalism. He would explore Chesapeake Bay by boat in 1620. After his stint as assembly speaker, he returned to England, where is would live a life addicted to gossip and alcohol. But much of what we know of those early days in Virginia, we owe to John Pory, for he chronicled daily events in the Jamestown Colony in Virginia and later in the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.
The democratic process is often called an “experiment.” But as we look to our future, let’s not forget our past. This American democratic experiment is not a mere 239 years old; it dates to this day in 1619 when 22 men gathered in a church choir room. They needed a leader, but this would not involve violence or manipulation. They took a vote. Master John Pory was elected, and democracy was born.