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From Oligarchy to Democracy: Governing Virginia's First City

by Jackson C. Tuttle, II

Williamsburg had the first, and for a long time, the only city government in Virginia. One reasonably could have expected that the first city in Virginia, capital of the largest and wealthiest of the American colonies, would become one day as a great metropolis. Instead, by the twists of fortune, Williamsburg remains to this day a small town, albeit one with special appeal. Williamsburg can trace the evolution of its government to a time when it stood unique in Virginia-the lone city in a commonwealth divided into counties. This distinction and others led Governor John G. Pollard in 1932, to write, "The establishment of the first city government in Virginia was of primary importance in American political history."

The General Assembly Act of 1699 laid the foundation for Wil­liamsburg's city government. In deciding to move the government of Virginia from Jamestown to Wil­liams­burg, the act envisioned "a new and well-ordered city according to a careful and prepared design." Governor Francis Nicholson and his executive council ensured that the new city would remain under their control by naming in the act a governing board of directors. The original directors included Governor Nicholson himself, Phillip Ludwell, Sr., Phillip Ludwell, Jr., Lewis Burwell, Benjamin Harrison, Jr., Hugh Norwell, Edmond Jennings, Thomas Ballard, and Henry Tyler. A number of these directors, along with James Whaley, Mongo Inglis, and others, also constituted a board of trustees to acquire and transfer land for the new city. Needless to say, all directors and trustees were prominent land-owning gentlemen appointed, not elected, to their positions. Popular election to city office did not occur for another 170 years.

According to Robert Beverley, writing in 1705,

Soon after his [Nicholson's] succession to the government, he procured the Assembly and courts of judicature to be removed from Jamestown where there were good accommodations for people, to Middle Plantation where there were none, flattered himself with the fond imagination of being the founder of a new city. He marked out the streets in many places so as that they might represent the figure of a W in memory of his late majesty, King William, after whose name the town was called Williamsburg.

In addition to a lot 475 by 475 feet square for the new capitol building, the Assembly appropriated 220 acres of land for the town proper and 63 acres for two seaports-Queen Mary's Port (Capitol Landing on Queen's Creek leading to the York River) and Princess Anne's Port (College Landing on Archer's Hope Creek accessing the James). On this land, Nicholson engaged in one of the earliest attempts at comprehensive city planning in America.

Williamsburg's first comprehensive plan was no academic exercise, but the basis for immediate action. The central boulevard of the city, a one-hundred-foot wide Duke of Gloucester Street would extend seven-eighths of a mile, along the ridge line dividing the James and York watersheds, from the Capitol Square to the College of William and Mary. To make the grand street straight, four small houses and an oven, all owned by Colonel John Page, had to be moved. While this early example of eminent domain was uncontested (Page supported the new town project and received three pounds in compensation), it may be America's first condemnation proceeding. As always, however, the planner's dreams were not fully realized: the College's existing Wren Building (1693) is not square on the grand new street; to this day the street itself is not quite straight but meanders in its wide right-of-way; and only traces of Nicholson's original W s remain. Nonetheless, the attention to such zoning details and design standards as building setbacks, minimum dwelling house sizes, and degree of roof pitch would be recognized by modern day city planners.

City planning in Williamsburg, begun so auspiciously in 1699, was thereafter largely ignored until the mid-twentieth century. The careful grid pattern of streets and the set-aside commons for open space and vistas, gave way to railroad and highway projects bisecting the city as it grew into a confusing and dysfunctional layout that still plagues residents and visitors. City Council created a planning commission in 1930 and adopted increasingly detailed comprehensive plans in 1953, 1968, 1981, 1989, and 1998. Over the years, zoning and subdivision ordinances, urban design standards, and environmental controls have done much to preserve and enhance the physical character of the city. Expansive and visionary planning did not drive the annexations of 1915, 1923, 1941, 1964, or 1984. Rather, through incremental inclusion of newly developed land adjacent to the city, Williamsburg grew from its original one square mile in 1722, when Boundary Street was the western boundary of the city, to today's nine square miles. Since 1987, the Virginia General Assembly has virtually precluded municipal annexations, and Williamsburg will likely remain a small town indefinitely.

Within the street pattern laid out by Nicholson, the city rapidly took shape between 1699 and 1722. The first capitol, palace, jail, courthouse, magazine, and theater were all completed, along with many businesses and private residences. Within two decades, Williamsburg had become the center of political, educational, religious, economic, and cultural life in Virginia.

In 1717, the colony's only city petitioned for a charter to govern itself: a body of "free-holders and inhabitants" appealed for incorporation. The colonial government, like modern state governments, sought to retain control over local affairs. Only when the state finds that control also entails responsibility for solving pesky and endless local problems-such as Williamsburg's hogs persistently rooting in the public streets-does it find some degree of home rule convenient. Consequently, their appeal languished until 1722, when John Clayton, Archibald Blair, and Thomas Jones succeeded in obtaining a city charter from King George I.

The charter created a self-perpetuating municipal corporation composed of a mayor, six aldermen, and twelve common-councilmen. It named Clayton as recorder and John Holloway as the first mayor. The first aldermen were Blair, Jones, Sir John Randolph (father of Peyton and John), John Curtis, James Bray, and William Robertson. These men selected the twelve common-councilmen, who together constituted the "Common Hall." All officers were to serve "for so long as they shall behave themselves in the respective places," except for the mayor, who was to be elected from the aldermen by the Common Hall annually "on the feast day of St. Andrew." As a closed corporation, the Common Hall filled vacancies caused by death, removal, or resignation. The mayor, recorder, and aldermen acted as justices of the peace and sat monthly as a court of hustings. They were empowered to appoint other officers and make laws to govern the city, provided that local ordinances did not conflict with the laws of the General Assembly.

Extensive legislative, judicial, and administrative powers in the Charter of 1722 were held in check by a severely limited authority to tax, just as today's state legislatures may give localities broad powers and responsibilities, but closely limit their ways and means. The charter gave Williamsburg no power to tax; the city's only revenue came from fines from the exercise of its judicial powers and tolls collected on markets and fairs. The charter stated that markets were to be held each Wednesday and Saturday; semi-annual fairs were scheduled in April and December. Market days and fairs may have added to the economic and social life of the young city, but they were completely inadequate as sources of municipal revenue. The colony granted taxing authority grudgingly and for limited purposes. In 1761, the city was granted power to levy a poll tax to repair streets, which the enabling act described as "in so ruinous a condition as to render it unsafe to pass." In 1764, the power to tax extended to repairing or replacing public buildings, supporting hospitals, purchasing fire engines, sinking wells, hiring watchmen and firemen, repairing streets and lands, and for no other purpose.

Williamsburg has struggled with inadequate revenues for nearly all of its history. Not until the latter third of the twentieth century did the city succeed in developing a variety of revenue sources capable of sustaining city operations at an acceptable level. These sources are grounded in the city's tourism economy, namely, taxes on retail sales, hotel rooms, and on the sale of prepared foods.

After the government of Virginia moved to Richmond in 1780, demonstrating the westward shift of Virginia political power, Williamsburg's government mirrored the decline of the town itself. The Commonwealth, unable to sell its assets for hard currency, deeded the Capitol and the Palace to the city in 1782. The Palace burned in that year, as did the Capitol in 1832. The original Charter of 1722 and all of the city's antebellum records met the same fate in the great fire of Richmond at the end of the Civil War. Another sign of the city's decline was the failure of local politicians to rise to national prominence. No longer did the roster of the city's governing body include famous names, like Wythe and Randolph.

Only one municipal improvement from this otherwise sad period remains. In 1859, the city acquired four acres of land for a cemetery along the road to College Landing. Expanded over the years to seventeen acres, Cedar Grove Cemetery still serves city residents and is noted as the site of common graves for some 250 Confederate soldiers.

Local government by closed corporation continued until after the Civil War, when the Reconstruction-era General Assembly ended it through general legislation. In 1884, the city's charter was revised by special legislation. Henceforth, Williamsburg would be governed by a biennially elected mayor, six councilmen, and five other elected officers. For the first time in history, African-Americans served on City Council. Neither the coming of democracy, nor the arrival of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in 1881, did much to reverse the city's fortunes. The proud College, about all the city had going for it, suspended classes and closed its doors from 1881 to 1888. Williamsburg entered the twentieth century with little more hope than it had leaving the eighteenth. It is Williamsburg's greatest historic irony that the 150 years in the doldrums allowed many colonial structures to survive into the twentieth century and made the city's rebirth and restoration possible.

A late 1920s' snapshot of conditions for which city government was responsible does not make a pretty picture. In fact, the picture had changed little since colonial times:

  • Most of the city streets were unpaved; only Duke of Gloucester and York Streets and Jamestown and Richmond Roads had concrete surfaces. Streets were poorly lighted, poorly cleaned, and poorly maintained.
  • Sewage from the hospital, the College, and the city proper flowed raw and untreated into the ravines surrounding the city and from there to the James and York Rivers.
  • Drinking water came from wells, pumps, and standpipes-owned variously bythe College, hospital, Virginia Electric and Power Company, and the city-operated as a unified system under a cooperative agreement. The water was high in salts, unpleasant in taste, and corrosive.
  • Refuse collection dumps and landfills were strictly private affairs. Litter, abandoned cars, and junk were endemic to the town.
  • Changes in technology were robbing the town of its remaining dignity. Telephone poles and power lines claimed the center of Duke of Gloucester Street. Gas stations and garages sprang up, which, in Dr. Goodwin's view were "fast spoiling the whole appearance of the old streets and old city."

City government in the 1920s had not been up to the challenge. While the directly elected mayor was the city's chief executive under the charter, he served part time and without pay. He was supposed to supervise all subordinate officers, such as the city sergeant who acted as the chief of police. The city sergeant was also independently elected, but, unlike the mayor, salaried. In practice, the mayor took little administrative authority over numerous independently elected and compensated officials, including the city clerk, the treasurer, the commissioner of revenue, the sheriff and the city sergeant. For its part, the council divided itself into standing committees such as the committees on streets, health, the cemetery, and the poor. The lack of administrative structure to carry out its wishes and a chronic lack of funds made the Council largely ineffective. The total budget was overspent in 1928 and 1929, incurring deficits. Designated sinking funds for payment of outstanding bonds were short by $34,000. The budget did not balance expenditures against revenues; in fact, no formal estimate of revenues was made at the time expenditures were authorized. In short, the city did not have even a rudimentary budgetary accounting system. City government was so casual that in 1912, no one remembered to hold the City Council election.

The existence of such conditions in a small Virginia town in the 1920s was not surprising. The surprise was the force and speed with which a new generation of community leaders recognized and attacked the problems at the height of the Depression. By 1930, the Williamsburg restoration was in full swing. It was apparent to locals and to the newcomers working for Rockefeller's Williamsburg Holding Company that the need to serve thousands of visitors and to protect the re-created town demanded local government action.

Unquestionably, the single most significant motivation for change in city government was the restoration, but the quality of City Council leadership during this critical time cannot be undervalued. Dr. John G. Pollard, professor of constitutional law at the College of William and Mary, became mayor in 1928, only to resign the following year upon his election as governor. Pollard was succeeded as mayor by George P. Coleman, who, as state highway commissioner, had been largely responsible for what street paving had occurred in Williamsburg before the restoration. Local attorney Channing M. Hall served as council president during the early days of the restoration, becoming mayor in 1934 and serving until 1947. He supported the Goodwin-Rockefeller vision and oversaw the modernization of city government during his thirteen years in office. Almost all the civic leaders of the era supported the radical transformation of the town and executed an overhaul of city government.

Early in 1930, the mayor and council took three important steps to address the city's problems: they asked Luther H. Gulick and the Institute of Public Administrators of New York City to make a thorough study of city finances and organization, they circulated for discussion a new draft charter to restructure city government, and they hired A. L. Meisel as full-time city engineer. Meisel later became the city's first city manager.

Although Gulick may not have been a name known to the bootblack, in the 1930s he was a prominent force nationally in the municipal reform movement. As much as anyone, he founded the modern study of public administration, and he served as confidante to New Deal President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Gulick and his Institute team came to town in March 1930. Their extensive study of city government, with particular emphasis on city administrative structure and finances, also included "special engineering reports" on water supply and distribution, fire protection, sewage disposal, city streets, and waste collection and disposal.

In an age before management consultants became commonplace in local government, this work in Williamsburg stands out as thorough and practical. After delivery of the report, Gulick concluded that the study should be published as an example of "present day government and problems of a small American city." The resulting book, Modern Government in a Colonial City, opened with a sixty-one-page essay titled, "The Civil History of Williamsburg," written by the Honorable John G. Pollard, governor of Virginia. According to Gulick, Pollard's introduction "would give the reader something of the romance of Williamsburg and an appreciation of the gradual development of its governmental institutions."

In tandem with Gulick's survey, a draft of the first complete revision of the city's charter since 1722 quietly surfaced. It followed closely the model city charter of the National Municipal League, creating a "council-manager" form of government. It also deftly incorporated existing constitutional officers while consolidating authority in the hands of a smaller five-member city council and their appointed city manager. It had the fingerprints of constitutional lawyer Pollard and public administration expert Gulick all over it. The General Assembly approved the new charter on March 29, 1932.

The Charter of 1932 provided for the council to appoint the mayor and vice-mayor from its members, rather than requiring direct election of the mayor. The mayor would preside at council meetings and be recognized as the official head of the city for all "ceremonial purposes." Meisel, who had served as city engineer since 1930, now became the "chief executive officer" of the city, chosen "solely on the basis of his executive and administrative qualifications," and "removable at the pleasure of the Council." Meisel, a Richmond native and a 1925 VMI engineering graduate, worked for private engineering firms before coming to Williamsburg, in 1928, to work on the Temple Waddill survey for the restoration. When he resigned as city manager in 1942, he returned to the private sector.

Late in 1933, a young dentist named Henry M. Stryker received an appointment to fill a vacancy on City Council. "Polly" Stryker remained at the center of city business for the next thirty-five years, serving as mayor from 1948 to 1968 and representing Williamsburg at home and abroad with style and heart. While technically a "weak" mayor under the council-manager form, by force of personality, Dr. Stryker was in charge. In fact, if there is one dominant figure in Williamsburg city government in the twentieth century, it is Polly Stryker.

Stryker firmly believed that the city's future was now inextricably tied to the success of Colonial Williamsburg. He led the city government through many critical decisions, each designed to uphold the city's side of the partnership despite chronic money shortages. Three notable examples were the purchase of Waller Mill Reservoir, the enactment of land-use zoning, and the reform of the fire department.

During World War II, the federal government dammed Queen's Creek, creating a 1.5-billion-gallon drinking water impoundment to serve Camp Peary. Seeking a more plentiful source of water and to improve the quality of drinking water, the city agreed to buy Waller Mill Reservoir in 1944. By continuing to upgrade and expand the treatment plant, pumps, mains and storage tanks, Williamsburg has become the only jurisdiction on the Virginia Peninsula, other than Newport News, to control its own surface water supply. The reservoir provides the town, College, hospital, and tourist industry with affordable, reliable drinking water. As a significant side benefit, 2,400 acres of watershed property are preserved from development, and Waller Mill Park ranks as a recreational treasure. All this happened because a few farsighted city leaders in the 1940s made it so. Waller Mill is so important to the city that the day in June 1963 when the earthen dam broke and emptied the reservoir is remembered as the city's greatest natural disaster in modern times.

Just as the reservoir divided the town at the time of its purchase - naysayers objected to the cost and to drinking "swamp water" - so enactment of the city's first zoning ordinance in 1947 met stiff opposition. Property owners and business people objected to the imposition of citywide zoning, even though it had been authorized in the Charter of 1932. Polly Stryker pushed it through.

Another achievement of the Stryker era was the transformation of the fire department from a well-meaning but ineffective club to a well-trained and well-equipped volunteer and career force. The catalyst for the change was the infamous Brickhouse Tavern fire in 1950 in which one person died. An investigation revealed serious deficiencies in water pressure, fire code enforcement, fire suppression training and equipment. With funding support and encouragement from Colonial Williamsburg, the city hired Elliot Jayne as fire marshall in 1950. A true professional and no nonsense leader, Jayne created the modern Williamsburg Fire Department with a statewide reputation for excellence in fire prevention, rescue, emergency medicine, and disaster response. The fire department also claims as its heritage an organized fire service dating from at least the 1750s, when the town imported a hand-operated fire pumper and four dozen leather buckets from London. Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg can work the hand pump on a replica of Williamsburg's first fire engine and man the bucket brigade to put out real fires.

In 1968, Mayor Stryker retired from the council. Vincent D. McManus, who had served briefly as mayor before Stryker, returned to the job. That same year, a young attorney, Vernon M. "Bud" Geddy, Jr., whose father had represented the legal interests of Colonial Williamsburg from the earliest days of the Restoration, was elected to council. Stryker had been the senior Geddy's closest friend and the younger Geddy's second father and mentor. In 1970, Geddy took over as mayor and held the office for the next ten years, another long run in the Stryker tradition. Through most of his tenure, Stryker had the support of City Council and nineteen-year veteran City Manager Hugh B. Rice. Before retiring, Stryker over saw the hiring of a new city manager, Frank Force, who remained in the job until 1991. Thus, the Stryker legacy, begun in 1933, is still very much a part of Williamsburg city government.

The story of city government since 1970 will be left for another day. Modern times have been full of change and controversy:

  • Rapid growth of James City and York Counties and the increasingly complex and intense web of joint ventures for schools, library, regional jail, courthouse, and the like.
  • Redevelopment of the city's Municipal Center area.
  • Creation and work of the Williamsburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
  • Development of a recreation department and system of city parks.
  • Intervention in the lives of citizens in need through an active social service department.
  • Overhaul of the police department leading to increased professionalism and national accreditation.
  • Negotiations and settlement of the "last annexation" into James City County in 1984.
  • Acquisition of major tracts of undeveloped property both in the city and in the Waller Mill watershed.
  • Completion, by 1999, of an aggressive program of capital improvements, including Library expansion, Matthew Whaley School rehabilitation, Municipal Center Parking and Community Building, Williamsburg-James City County Courthouse, and the Waller Mill Water Plant renovation.

Through it all Williamsburg city government is still about the business it was created to do in 1699, and striving to realize its vision:

Williamsburg will become an even more safe, beautiful, livable city of historic and academic renown, served by a city government-cohesively led, financially strong, always improving-in full partnership with the people who live, work and visit here (Williamsburg City Council, Vision Statement, 1995 ).

Selected Sources and Suggested Reading

Belvin, Ed. Growing up in Williamsburg: From the Depression to Pearl Harbor (Williamsburg: Virginia Gazette, 1981).

City of Williamsburg:

Annual Budgets contain information on city government, including "City Council Goals and Initiatives for the Biennium," Performance Data, and Capital Improvement Program, as well as budgets.

Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports account for all city revenues and expenditures

Comprehensive Plans of 1989 and 1998 provide extensive information related to the physical development and natural environment of the city.

Code of the City of Williamsburg contains the City Charter and the codified ordinances adopted by City Council.

City Council Minutes of all council meetings and work sessions.

Policies and Procedures of City Council describe rules and guidelines for council operations.

City of Williamsburg's World Wide Web site is: www.williamsburgva.gov.

Goodwin, Rutherfoord. A Brief and True Report Concerning Williamsburg in Virginia (1940; rep. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1972).

Luther Gulick. Modern Government in a Colonial City: A survey of the City Government and Finances of Williamsburg, Virginia (N.Y.: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1932).

Last updated: 9/21/2011 3:50:21 PM