Historical Evolution

of the

Legislature of the Virgin Islands




 painting1It has often been said that to fully understand something, you must understand its history. This can truly be said of the Virgin Islands Legislature. The nature of the present body is derived from the experiences of Danish colonialism and from the struggle of our people for self-government under the American flag.

The present Legislature of the Virgin Islands is a fifteen member body in which all the legislative powers of the territory are vested. It enjoys the powers and privileges held by most state legislatures of the Union. The Capitol Building, in which the body is housed,is located just south of Fort Christian on the Island of St. Thomas.

The Capitol Building is an exceptional example of 19 century classical architecture. This building replaced two earlier military structures dating to the periods of 1827 and 1873. The present building was constructed in 1874, at a cost of $29,000, for the purposes of military barracks for Fort Christian and a battery installation. The Roman numerals on the portal of the building are MDCCLXXIV (1874).

The building was used to house the Danish Militia and the Gendarmes until 1917 when the islands were transferred to the United States. The formal Transfer Day ceremonies of the islands from Denmark to the U.S. took place on the grounds of the building on March 31, 1917.

From that time until 1931, when the transfer to civil government took place, the building was used as a barracks for the U.S. Marines. From 1931 to 1955 the building was used as the site of the Charlotte Amalie High School with an interruption during World War II caused when it was taken over by the military to incarcerate prisoners brought to St. Thomas off a Vichy ship captured by the U.S. Navy in the Eastern Caribbean Sea.

In 1957, the Legislature, which formerly met on the top floor of the Enid Baa Library, and the Department of Social Welfare, moved into the building with the Legislature occupying the top floor and Social Welfare

the first floor. However, as
the Legislature and its staff expanded, it became necessary to occupy both floors, and a few years later, around 1970, the Legislature occupied the entire building in the manner that it does now.

The beginning of the Legislature can be traced back to the passage of the Colonial Law of 1852. This law, the first “constitution” of the Islands, provided for the establishment of a unified Colonial Assembly and for a Governor as the
chief executive, or to be more accurate, as a vice regent of
the King of Denmark. The governor, as the king’s direct representative, had the power to issue ordinances which had the force of law. In addition, he had the power to dissolve the

Assembly with the provision that this not be done more than twice in two years and that a new election be held within two months of the dissolution.

The Colonial Assembly, which served all three Islands, was basically limited to an advisory role. It could only make recommendations which could be accepted or rejected by the governor. In addition, the King still reserved the final authority to reject or amend any law made in the colony.

The Colonial Assembly, in addition to its lack of decision making power, had serious flaws. It was forced to attempt to combine two incompatible economic systems into one political system. St. Thomas, with
a maritime-based economy, had totally different requirements from St. Croix, which had an agrarian
one. Because St. Croix had a larger delegation to the Assembly than either of the other two Islands, many recommendations were passed which were unfavorable to St. Thomas. To make matters worse for the St. Thomian delegates, meetings were held on St. Croix. Eventually, because of a combination of transportation difficulties and hostilities, St. Thomian delegates ceased to attend meetings and consequently, none were conducted between 1856 and 1859. Needless to say, this legislative system soon fell apart, and eleven years after its inception, was superseded by the Colonial Law of 1863.

“Focused, Prepared, Resilient” 13