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London Company, the

Twenty years after Raleigh's first attempt to establish a colony in America, Richard Hakluyt, prebendary of Westminster, incited several gentlemen, some of them personal friends of Raleigh, to petition King James I. to grant them a patent for planting colonies in North America. Raleigh's grant was made void by his attainder. There was not an Englishman to be found in America then, and there was only one permanent settlement north of Mexico, that of St. Augustine. The petition was received by the King, and on April 10, 1606, James issued letters-patent to Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Somers, Richard Hakluyt, Edward Maria Wingfield, and others, granting to them a territory extending from lat. 34° to 45° N., together with all the islands in the ocean within 100 miles of the coast. The object of the patent was “to make habitations and plantations,” and to form colonies by sending English people into that portion of America “commonly called Virginia, with the hope of Christianizing and civilizing the pagans there.” The territory was divided into two districts, called, respectively, North and South Virginia. A supreme government of the domain was vested in a council, resident in England, to be named by the King, to be governed by laws which he should prescribe, and subordinate jurisdiction was committed to a council resident in Virginia. All the rights of citizenship were to be guaranteed to the colonists; besides this they would possess no political rights. Homage and rent were the prime conditions of the charter—rent in the form of one-fifth of the net profits arising from mines of precious metals.

The charter had not the feature of a free government; for, to the emigrants, not a single elective franchise, or a right to self-government, was conceded. They were to be governed by a commercial corporation, of which they were not allowed to be members, and even in matters of divine worship they had no choice. The doctrine and ritual of the Church of England were to be the established theology and mode of worship in the American colonies, and no dissent was allowed. The colonists were permitted to coin money for their own use, to import necessaries from England free of duty for seven years, and to take measures for repelling enemies. The proprietors of each section were invested with the right of property in the lands extending along the coast 50 miles each way from the point first settled respectively, and back 100 miles from the coast. To an association of “noblemen, gentlemen, and merchants,” chiefly residing in London, was granted a charter for the settlement of South Virginia. This was known as the “London Company.” A similar charter was granted to “knights, gentlemen, and merchants,” of Plymouth, Bristol, and other places in the west of England, and this was known as the “Plymouth Company.”

The King prepared a code of laws for the colonists, in which kindness to the Indians, regular preaching of the Gospel, and teaching religion to the pagans were enjoined; also providing for the wellordering of a civil community. Under this charter, and laws and instructions from the King, presented in November, 1606, the London Company sent three ships with emigrants from the Thames, on Dec. 20, under the command of Captain Newport, and they landed on the banks of the James River in May, 1607. The company desired more the immediate profits from precious metals discovered than to found a commonwealth. Indeed, the class of men they sent over were totally unfit for such a noble service. The disappointed company demanded impossibilities. In 1608 they sent word to the colonists that, if they did not send them commodities sufficient to pay the charges of the voyage in which their demand was sent ($10,000); a “lump of gold, the product of Virginia; assurance of having found a passage to the Pacific Ocean, and also one of the lost colony sent to Roanoke,” they should be “left in Virginia as banished men.” To this absurd demand and threat Captain Smith made a spirited answer, in which he implored them to send better emigrants if they expected the fruits of industry.

The company now sought strength by influential alliances, and they succeeded in associating with them wealthy and powerful men in the kingdom. In the [468] spring of 1609 the company was composed of twenty-one peers, several bishops, ninety-eight knights, and a multitude of professional men, “gentlemen,” and merchants. They thus obtained great influence in Parliament, and in May, 1609, they procured a new charter, under the title of “The Treasurer and Company of Adventurers and Planters of the City of London for the First Colony in Virginia,” by which the border of the domain was extended, by a grant of new territory, northward to Chesapeake Bay; the offices of president and council in Virginia were abolished, and all laws for the government of the colony were to be passed by the supreme council in England, and administered by persons appointed by that body. The colonists were really vassals, without any recognized power to remove the yoke from their necks. The rule of the appointed governor was absolute, and they were compelled to share a certain portion of their net earnings with the proprietors.

In 1612 a third charter was obtained by the London Company, by which the control of the King in their affairs was annulled, the supreme council was abolished, and the whole company, sitting as a democratic assembly, elected the officers and ordained laws for the colonists, who remained without political rights. In spite of their disabilities, the Virginians flourished under the new order of things. The seeds of representative government were then sown, and in 1621 the company gave the colonists a written constitution that conferred the privilege of the elective franchise in a limited degree. The King, in May, 1623, appointed a commission to examine the transactions of the corporation from the beginning and to report to the privy council. All their charters, books, and papers were seized; two of the principal officers were arrested, and all letters from the colony were intercepted and taken to the privy council. Captain Smith's testimony was damaging to the company.

The report was kept a secret until the company received a notice from the King and privy council (October, 1623) that it was judged that the misfortunes to Virginia had been occasioned by their mismanagement, and that the sovereign had determined to revoke the old charter and issue a new one which would concentrate the power of government in a few hands. The astonished company indignantly refused to sanction the stigma affixed to their conduct by this order, or to consent to a change in the popular form of their government. They declared themselves prepared to defend their rights against any measures the King might decide on. Incensed by their audacity, James directed a writ of quo warranto to be issued against the company, to try the validity of the charter in the court of King's Bench. The company, hopeless of obtaining justice in that court, appealed to the House of Commons for redress. They sympathized with the company, but their session was too near its close to allow them to enter into inquiries. The exasperated King launched a proclamation, July 4, 1624, suppressing the courts of the company and committing the temporary management of colonial affairs to members of the privy council. The contest resulted in the vacation of the charter, by order of the court of King's Bench, the dissolution of the London Company, and Virginia becoming a royal province. It had been an unprofitable speculation for the members of the company. They had spent $500,000 of their own fortune in establishing the first permanent English colony in America. They had sent 9,000 persons there; when the company dissolved not more than 2,000 remained. The annual value of exports to England from Virginia did not exceed $100,000. Ten different persons had served as governors of Virginia during the eighteen years of the existence of the London Company.

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Caleb Smith (2)
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Edward Maria Wingfield (1)
George Somers (1)
Walter Raleigh (1)
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