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Royal Colonies

Royal Colonies


Crown Law. Royal colonies were those that in the absence or revocation of a private or proprietary charter came under the direct, everyday governmental control of the English monarchy. It is important to emphasize that the Crown and not Parliament held sovereignty over royal colonies. In theory their purpose, from the royal perspective, was in some ways similar to that of a medieval fiefdom. That is, the foremost function of a royal colony was to benefit the English Crown. Although most colonies started out as private or proprietary ventures, the majority became royal usually through revoked or time-limited charters well before the Revolutionary era. By the mid eighteenth century eight of the thirteen mainland colonies were royal: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Of these, only New Hampshire actually started out as a royal province and then only after Charles II annexed it from the then-privately chartered Massachusetts Bay Colony. New

York, after its English takeover from the Dutch in 1664, if not technically then in practical function, started out as a royal colony since Charles II granted it to his brother, James, the duke of York, who would succeed Charles to the throne in 1685.

Instability. Some colonies became royal by the lack of proprietary governments ability to provide stability. North and South Carolina, for instance, started out as one colony under eight proprietors. During the first two decades of the eighteenth century proprietary control steadily waned due to French, Spanish, and Indian threats. In 1719 South Carolina (regional distinction in the Carolinas had evolved by the eighteenth century) colonists deposed the proprietary governor Robert Johnson and appointed an interim. In 1721 South Carolina became a royal colony with the kings appointment of Francis Nicholson as governor. Once the proprietors sold their interests in 1729 North Carolina became a royal colony as well. In 1732 trustees received a twenty-one year royal charter for Georgia, which had belonged to the Carolina proprietors until 1729. With the expiration of this charter in 1752 Georgia became a royal colony (last of the thirteen colonies formed). Virginia, originally chartered under the Virginia Company, became a royal colony in 1624 upon that charters revocation. Upon the Board of Trades recommendation New Jersey, a proprietary colony since 1664, came under the Crown in 1702.

Dominion of New England. James II forced royal rule over Massachusetts in 1685. Boston became the headquarters for the centralizing efforts of this Dominion of New England under appointed Gov. Sir Edmund Andros. All the New England colonies, along with New York and New Jersey, were under Andross royal regime for a time. With the fall of James II in 1688 and the ensuing Glorious Revolution in 1688, the Dominion of New England ended.

Commission and Instructions. The royal governors role was in many ways precarious. First and foremost he was officially the kings representative in the colony. Although he bore the title His Excellency, he did not have the free will of a king. The governors actions were not to originate with him but with the Crown, whose wishes were issued through a general commission (varying little from governor to governor) and subsequent instructions, which were outlined periodically in accordance to circumstances unique to a given colony. Unlike the commission, which was often read at the governors induction ceremony, the instructions were not for public consumption. On occasion the council members had limited access, but generally the detailed contents of administrative policy and procedure contained therein were completely secret to all but the governor. The governors instructions gave him and his council control of appropriations. Yet the general assemblies usually were successful hindrances to the effective execution of this power.

Judiciary. The governor had significant judicial powers as well. He, along with the council, had oversight of lower courts. Most important, the governor-in-council was the highest colonial court. Any appeals to this bodys decisions were referred to the Privy Council in England. As legislative head of the council and assembly the governor had sovereign veto power, a power the Crown expected him to use with vigor for the advancement of British interests. But the governor who ignored provincial concerns, especially those expressed through the assembly, did so at his own political peril. A compromise between carrying out royal instructions and serving local interests was often an extremely difficult but necessary medium to attain. Sir Thomas Robinsons words, written in 1747 upon his recall as governor of Barbados, clearly express a royal governors typical dilemma: If a governor lies under the fatal necessity of disobliging a majority of representatives by doing his duty on one hand, or on the other of gaining their favor by a breach of duty, his doom is fixed, since he must either fall a victim to the unjust rage of those men for what is right or to his Majestys just displeasure for doing what is wrong. In 1701 Gov. Christopher Codrington Jr. of the Leeward Islands summed it up well. It was as if, he said, he were walking between red hot irons.

Decline. Given the delicate diplomacy required to successfully govern a royal colony, it is not so surprising that the governors began to decline in effective rule, as it I is remarkable that they succeeded at all. The fact that governors were usually chosen for who they knew rather than for what they could do makes their relative longevity even more impressive. It should not be forgotten that colonists in such provinces as South Carolina and Maryland saw proprietary governorship as insufficient for stability and consequently discarded it for royal rule. Excluding, of course, the often-cited exceptions, it is to the royal governors credit in finding a flexible medium that prior to 1763 Americans rarely expressed the notion to break away from the empire of Great Britain. But decline in royal governorship did eventually come, especially after the mid-eighteenth century mark. That decline did not come about, however, so much from personal inabilities as it did from underlying forces beyond immediate control, forces that were moving long before the governors decline, was a discernable reality. None of the forces were more significant than the ever-increasing power of local colonial assemblies.

Royal Council. The men who made up the royal councils were usually provincials recommended by the governor, chosen by the Board of Trade, and appointed by the king. They ideally served for life, and the average number per council was twelve. Councilors received no pay for their services, but their position of power often secured them other paying positions within the government. Most councilmen were already men from families of considerable wealth. It was not uncommon for several relatives to serve on one council.

Problem of a Quorum. Five made up a quorum on island colonies and three on the continent in emergencies. One of the most acute problems for a governor was keeping a quorum. Absentee councilors became such a problem that after 1720 all governors were authorized to suspend a councilor if he was absent from the colony for twelve months without permission. Few governors acted on the instruction, however, even as problems of prolonged absenteeism were rampant by the mid eighteenth century. One thing that caused much consternation within the colonies was the immense power the council had in relation to its meager quorum requirement. Outside the governor, three men could determine the fate of legislation passed by an entire assembly. This, along with problems of absenteeism, caused voters to trust and support the elected assembly over the aristocratic governor and council.

Responsibilities. From the British perspective the most important governmental entity, apart from the royal governor, was the royal provincial council. It served both as a check and theoretically as an allied partner to the governor in practically every aspect of his duties. The council held judicial, legislative, and executive powers. It was the highest appeals courtthe upper legislative houseas well as the governors chief advisory board. With the councils advisory role it also held considerable power in certain areas where the governor could not execute his will apart from its consent. Legislatively and judicially the council was somewhat a replica of the House of Lords (the nonrepresentative upper house in Englands Parliament), and in its executive role it had similar powers to the Privy Council in England. When the council served in its executive and judicial capacity, the governor was the presiding officer. But in its legislative role the council and governor were initially to be separate, especially since the governor held absolute veto power.

Intrusion. Even so, by the eighteenth century governors began to preside over the councils legislative functions, sometimes to that bodys chagrin. In 1703 the Virginia Council complained about Gov. Francis Nicholsons undue control: He is not only constantly present, but takes upon him to preside and debate, and state the question, and overrule as if he were still in council, which the said house takes to be a great encroachment on their liberties and privileges. Early on, virtually all royal governors commissions gave the power, provided there was good and sufficient cause, to remove councilors from active service. Due to the unusual control this gave to governors, the Board of Trade began to curb this power, as in 1698 when Nicholsons instructions set limitations to prevent arbitrary and illgrounded recalls from the council. After 1715 governors generally could not remove members of the council apart from a majority vote within that body. It should be added, however, that overall the governor and council worked in considerable harmony toward their shared ideals of royal and personal interests. The real effectiveness of the council, however, is debatable. Even with its varied legislative, judicial, and executive functions it was relatively powerless apart from a consenting governor. And as time progressed the governors position of power increased while the councils power decreased. Nevertheless, over time both became victims of the elected assembly.


Leonard Woods Labaree, Royal Government in America: A Study of the British Colonial System before 1783 (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1958);

Carl Ubbelohde, The American Colonies and the British Empire, 1607-1763 (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968).

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Royal Colonies


ROYAL COLONIES were established in North America by England, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The colonies were controlled by the king of the sovereign nation, who named a governor to each colony and, in English colonies, a council to assist him. The Crown was also responsible for appointing colonial judges, usually for life, though by 1760 they could be removed from office at will. The Crown controlled all unsold public lands, and the royal governor retained the power to disperse those lands. As a representative of the Crown in the colonies, the governor—who also could be removed at will by the king—and the council derived their authority from two key documents, the colonial commission and the set of royal instructions.

Some of the royal governors who worked at the will of the British Crown were well-trained bureaucrats. Others were just as likely to have gained their appointments solely through patronage. A majority of the royal governors had been born in England rather than the colonies; several chose to rule in absentia, despite instructions to the contrary. The average term for governors was five years. Although several royal governors developed positive and productive relationships with their colonial assemblies, most struggled to maintain control 3,000 miles from the Crown that had granted them the authority to rule.

In royal colonies, as in charter and proprietary governments, the assembly was popularly elected according to varying definitions of franchise. Though the governor and his council theoretically controlled appropriations and expenditures, in reality colonial assemblies undermined that power over time. By 1720, most colonial assemblies had wrested from the governor the power to initiate legislation, including laws governing taxation and the management of colonial revenue. With the exception of Georgia, established as a form of trusteeship supported directly by Parliamentary appropriation, most royal governors depended upon the assemblies for financial support. Colonial legislatures thus were in a position to challenge the authority of royal governors, most who lacked a network of patronage appointees sufficient to enable them to manipulate the local government.

By the eighteenth century, even as royal colonies became the standard form of colonial government, the governors themselves had begun to lodge complaints with the Crown that the assemblies were gaining too much power as governing bodies in and of themselves. Additionally they reported that the assemblies were much too inclined to reflect the will of the electorate rather than the king. Partially in an attempt to diffuse some of the financial control wielded by colonial assemblies, an act of Parliament in 1767 made colonial governors, councils, and judges independent of the assemblies; thereafter, they were paid directly from colonial revenue.

In theory, and according to royal instructions, laws passed by colonial assemblies had to be approved by both the governor and the Board of Trade in England. In practice, however, the vagaries of both distance and an inefficient hierarchy meant that years could pass before laws to which England objected could be repealed. Colonial assemblies learned rapidly how to articulate and defend their own interests.

With the exception of New France, established as a French royal colony in 1608, and several of the Caribbean islands, all of the original seventeenth-century Dutch and English colonies were corporate or proprietary. Between settlement and the American Revolution, however, the royal colony became the standard form of colonial government. By 1775, only Pennsylvania and Maryland (which had been a royal colony briefly from 1690 to 1715, until the proprietor converted to Anglicanism) retained their proprietary status, and only Connecticut and Rhode Island remained corporate colonies.

A majority of the original North American colonies were corporate. Virginia, established initially under a charter granted to the Virginia Company in 1607, was the first to cede its control to the Crown, in 1624. New Netherland, settled by the Dutch under a corporate charter in 1613, became a proprietary colony under the Duke of York upon English conquest, and became a royal colony in 1685 with the accession to the thrown of James II. Plymouth (1620, annexed by Massachusetts in 1691), Massachusetts Bay (1630), Connecticut (1635), and Rhode Island (1636) were all established according to religious charters; Massachusetts Bay became a royal colony under its second charter in 1691, in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution.

Seventeenth-century proprietary colonies included Pennsylvania (on land granted to William Penn by Charles II in 1681), Maryland (Catholic, granted by Charles I to proprietor George Calvert, lord Baltimore and his heirs in 1632), New Jersey(given in two parcels by James, duke of York to Lord John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret), and Carolina (granted by Charles II to eight proprietors in 1663). Each would eventually become royal colonies. New Jersey became a single royal colony in 1702. Carolina was recognized as two distinct proprietary areas—North and South—according to a commission granted to Virginia agent Philip Ludwell, recruited by the proprietors in 1691. They became separate proprietary royal colonies in 1701. South Carolina became a royal colony in 1719, North Carolina in 1729.


Greene, Jack P. The Quest for Power: The Lower Houses of Assembly in the Southern Royal Colonies, 1689–1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963.

Labaree, Leonard Woods. Royal Government in America: A Study of the British Colonial System before 1783. 2d ed. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1964.

———, ed. Royal Instructions to British Colonial Governors, 1670– 1776. New York: Octagon Books, 1967.

Leslie J.Lindenauer

See alsoColonial Assemblies ; Colonial Councils ; Colonial Policy, British ; Proprietary Colonies .

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