Sunday, December 15, 2013
The Colonial Virginia Law Against Discharging Firearms at Barbecues: A Myth
There is an often repeated claim made in several books about barbecue that in the 17th century the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law outlawing the discharging of firearms at barbecues. The accounts mentioned in the various books vary only on the date of the establishment of the law. Some authors say the law was established in 1610, another says it was 1650, another says "the 1600s," another 1690, others say "the 17th century." While it's true that Virginians did cook barbecue in the 17th century and they did own firearms, a look through the laws established in Virginia in the 17th century does not validate the claim that there was a law that specifically outlawed firing guns at barbecue events.
The first law against discharging firearms established by the House of Burgesses was made in 1623. The purpose of the law was to conserve gun powder; "The commander of any plantation do either himselfe or suffer others to spend powder unnecessarily in drinking or entertainments, &c." In 1624 the law was expanded to prevent the discharge of firearms on Sundays or at parties except for weddings and funerals. The reason given was that a gun shot was chosen as the alarm that Indians were attacking and they didn't want false alarms. It's easy to see why the colonists were so nervous in 1624 when you think about the Indian attack in 1622 that killed 347, more than one fourth, of the colonists.
As to the claim that the law against the discharge of firearms was established in 1610 by Virginia's House of Burgesses, that is impossible. The first meeting of Virginia's House of Burgesses was held at Jamestown, then called James City, on July 30, 1619. A record of the proceedings comes down to us in an account written by speaker John Pory. Twenty two members comprised the first Assembly. John Pory was selected to be the speaker and John Twin chosen to be the clerk.
To sum things up, while it was impossible for the law against discharging firearms at barbecues to be established by the House of Burgesses before 1619 and while no law specifically referred to barbecues, you could make the claim that it was illegal to discharge firearms at barbecues because only weddings and funerals were excluded from the law and both of those were excuses to throw a barbecue. The impact of the law actually made allowances for discharging firearms at barbecues as long as the occasion was a wedding or funeral rather than outlawing the act on such occasions.
Virginia colonists were the first to establish a representative legislature in colonial America. As a result, Virginia was also the first to develop a system of standing committees for the transaction of business. The standing committee system that developed in Virginia was carried over to the federal government Congress and is still in use today.