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Lawes Divine - What Happened Next . . .

virginia company laws settlements

The strict enforcement of the "Lawes Divine" by Gates and Dale worked. The behavior of colonists generally fell into line. The governor and marshal were able to increase the number of settlements along the James River and encouraged crop experimentation. Colonist John Rolfe found that a West Indian species of tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum, grew easily on the Virginia land. In 1614 Gates took four barrels of the dried tobacco back to England. The English clamored to purchase it.

The settlements soon realized they had a crop, tobacco, to sustain them. Back in London, however, the Virginia Company was financially strapped after years of investing in the settlements with no profits. Sir Edwin Sandys assumed leadership of the company in 1618. Sandys promised liberal land grants and replacement of the Lawes Divine with a more representative government arrangement for the settlements. Sandys appointed Sir George Yeardley as the new governor of Virginia and sent him across the Atlantic with supplies and new settlers.

As soon as Yeardley arrived in April 1619, he announced the martial law of the Lawes Divine would end. He told the colonists to elect two citizens from each settlement and come to Jamestown in late July to decide on new laws with which to rule the colonies. On July 30, 1619, an assembly convened in the Jamestown church. The meeting lasted six days. First, after approving the "Great Charter" that allowed the assembly to exist, the members decided on laws prohibiting drunkenness, idleness, and gambling. They discussed land issues, planting, and relations with Indians.

Discussions led to the idea of having the colonists draft some laws themselves. John Pory, a colonist, went so far as to suggest that he and his fellow settlers should be able to "allowe or disallowe" orders from the Virginia Company back in London. At the time, the Virginia Company had complete veto power over anything passed by the assembly. For the Virginia Company's officers in London—who were considered representatives of King James—this suggestion was radical. They still believed themselves messengers from God since all laws came from God's guidance through the British crown. Nevertheless, the seeds of law and independence for the colonists had been planted.


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