The House of Burgesses and William Hatcher


A Little Parliament, by Warren M. Billings, 2004.

p. 37 discussing the rules for the House of Burgesses of VA.

In tone and substance, those rules bore marked resemblance to orders then in force in the House of Commons [of Parliament in England]. Burgesses were to attend whenever the House sat; those who absented themselves without permission stood liable to arrest and fines. While on the floor, they were to be mindful of the business before them and were supposed to refrain from becoming “disguised” with alcohol. When one wished to debate, he addressed “himselfe to Mr. Speaker in a decent manner” — otherwise he was not to “entertaine any private discourse” when a colleague held forth. Everyone was forbidden to indulge in intemperate language while speaking, just as all were expected to treat the presiding officer with singular courtesy. As in the House of Commons, whenever there was discussion of “any thing proposed by the Speaker, The Party that speaketh shall rise from his seate and be uncovered [i.e. hatless] dureing the time he speaketh, wherein no interruption shall be made untill he have finished his discourse.” Transgressors of this rule faced fine and rebuke.

As WILLIAM HATCHER learned, even nonmembers who aspersed the dignity of the House or its officers suffered speedy censure. The troubles began in OCTOBER 1654 when Hatcher, a former burgess from Henrico County, accused Edward Hill of blasphemy and atheism. Serious allegations under any circumstances, Hatcher’s assumed larger proportions because of Hill’s prominence as a senior militia office and a former Speaker [of the House of Burgesses]. Hatcher could not sustain his charges in the Quarter Court, which dismissed them. The matter should have ended once the court “cleered the said Coll. Edward Hill,” but Hatcher was foolhardy. When the General Assembly convened in November [1654] Hill’s colleagues again elected him Speaker, and Hatcher laid his slurs before the House. This time, though, he compounded the insinuations by asserting that “the mouth of this house was a Devil.” Affronted by such contempt for their Speaker, the members haled Hatcher before the bar of the House and forced him on bended knee to acknowledge “his offence unto the said Coll. Edward Hill and Burgesses of this Assembly; which accordingly was performed and then he the said Hatcher dismist paying his fees.”

The burgesses’ treatment of Hatcher mirrored the practice in the House of Commons. As it affords an additional, precise bit of evidence to sustain the conclusion that by the 1650s the burgesses were consciously modeling their procedures on Parliament. But did the Hatcher episode mark an exact instant at which the burgesses took another parliamentary prerogative for their own? The answer to that question is at best speculative because the incident is the sole example of its kind among the extant assembly records of that period. All that can be said with assurance is this. Hatcher’s case illustrates the burgesses’ appropriation of a power to punish anyone who held them tp to ridicule, although the precept was not then incorporated into the standing rules of order in the House. . . .

Unfortunately few records survive to reveal anything more than the bare outlines of how House committees worked. Scattered details furnish fleeting glimpses of the how and who of their composition. At least three committees were permanent fixtures by the middle 1650s. One, the Committee for Private Causes, acted more judicially than legislatively. Its primary duty lay in determining which civil appeals from the Quarter Court merited adjudication by the full General Assembly in its capacity as the court of last resort. Any legislation that modified statutory law, or proposed new ones, was given a first reading on the House floor then routed through the Committee for the Review of Acts, later known as the Committee for Propositions and Grievances. Its members vetted bills before sending them back to the full House for additional debate and final disposition. Revenue measures originated in the Committee on the Public Levy, which navigated passage of the provincial budget through the assembly. A part of its work, that committee also oversaw the apportionment and collection of taxes thrughout the colony, and it enjoyed considerable say in the disbursements of public funds. . . .

Because standing committees were essential to the timely disposal of business, they were named soon after the House went into session; the rest were chosen according to need. . . .

The end result of these and other refinements by the late 1650s was a secure House of Burgesses. Jealous of its stature and possessive of its rights, it stood confident as the wellspring of sovereignty in Virginia. As such, the House was strategically positioned to dictate the terms that returned the colony to his former loyalty [to royalty]. . . .
William Hatcher was serving in House of Burgesses in 1640s, and 1652 when the monarchy was overthrown by the Parliamentary Party under Cromwell in Britain.

The General Assembly of Virginia. July 30, 1619 – January 11, 1978. A Bicentennial Register of Members, by Cynthia Miller Leonard, 1978.

The Grand Assembly of 1644. House of Burgesses. Speaker Edward Hill.
Henrico: Richard Cocke **, Mathew Gough *, WILLIAM HATCHER **, Daniel Luellin, Abraham Wood **, John Zouch *.
* Present for March assembly, but not in October
** Present in October Assembly, but not in March.

Hatcher was not a member in 1645, when John Baugh and Abraham Wood represented Henrico Co.

The Grand Assembly of 1645-1646. Met first Nov. 20, 1645, and prorogued to 1 March 1646. Speaker Edmund Scarborough
Henrico Co. represented by holdover Abraham Wood and WILLIAM HATCHER.

The Grand Assembly of 1646, met 5 Oct. 1646. Speaker Ambrose Harmer. Henrico Co. represented by holdover ABRAHAM WOOD and William Cocke.

The Grand Assembly of 1647-1648, speaker Thomas Harwood. Henrico Co. represented by only Thomas Harris.

The Grand Assembly of 1649, met 10 Oct. 1649. Speaker Thomas Harwood. Henrico Co. represented only by WILLIAM HATCHER.

List for 1651-1652 is incomplete; neither speaker, nor representatives for most of the counties has survived.

The Grand Assembly of 1652, met April 26 to 6 May 1652. Speaker Edward Major. Henrico Co. represented by WILLIAM HATCHER.

The Grand Assembly of 1659, meeting 7 to 15 March 1659. Speaker, Edward Hill. Henrico Co. represented only by WILLIAM HATCHER.

Contributed by Mary Bondurant Warren