Colonial Policy, British

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COLONIAL POLICY, BRITISH. English colonial policy, which became "British" with the union of England and Scotland in 1707, promoted domestic industry, foreign trade, fisheries, and shipping by planting colonial settlements in the New World and exploiting its resources through such commercial companies as the Hudson's Bay Company and the South Sea Company. The colonial policy began with the sixteenth-century patents to Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1606 patents were granted to the London and Plymouth Companies of Virginia, and a settlement policy of direct Crown control was established. In 1609 this was modified by a charter issued to the Virginia Company substituting indirect for direct control and providing for a definite and extensive grant of land. This new policy led to the creation of the Council for New England in 1620. Direct control reappeared in 1624, when the political powers of the Virginia Company were withdrawn and Virginia became the first of the royal colonies under a system of government that included a governor appointed by the king and a colonial assembly. In 1629, however, the corporate colony of Massachusetts Bay was granted a charter that permitted the transfer of the government of the company to the New World. In 1632 the first proprietary colony of Maryland was established with the granting of wide powers to the Baltimore family. Thus three types of colonial government, royal, corporate, and proprietary, appeared.

Three types of British colonies existed in America. The first were plantation colonies in the Caribbean and the South Atlantic seaboard. These included Jamaica, Barbados, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, which produced sugar, tobacco, rice, and indigo. A second group, the Middle Colonies of Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, produced wheat and timber. The third group consisted of the New England colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine, whose economy rested on trade in rum and slaves and on shipbuilding.

The king directed colonial policy until the outbreak of the first English civil war, when the Long Parliament assumed control, acting mainly through a special commission or council provided for by the Ordinance of 1643. This ordinance gave its president, the earl of Warwick, the title of governor in chief and lord high admiral of all the English colonies in America. Between 1645 and 1651 Parliament enacted regulations for strict control of colonial commerce in favor of English shipping and manufactures. The Restoration did not reverse this parliamentary interference with the colonies but added a series of measures, beginning with the Navigation Act of 1660 and culminating in the Act of 1696. During the Commonwealth period Oliver Cromwell introduced a temporary departure in colonial policy in 1654 with his plan called the Western Design, whose purpose was the acquisition of Spanish colonies in the New World and settlement of them by English colonists.

The growing importance of the colonies led to various experiments in their supervision, such as the Laud Commission appointed by Charles I and the various councils of Charles II. The experiments ended with the transference in 1675 of this function to the Lords of Trade, a committee of the Privy Council, which continued to function until 1696, when William III established the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations, a body that survived until after the American Revolution.

Colonial policy in the eighteenth century tried to reduce the corporate and proprietary colonies to royal colonies, which largely succeeded. In addition the policy increased restrictions upon colonial enterprise with such acts as the Woolen Act of 1699, the White Pine Acts, the Hat Act of 1732, the Sugar Acts of 1733 and 1764, and the Iron Act of 1750.

From 1754 until 1763 the English and the French contested for the fur trade in the Ohio Valley. After a faltering start, when General Edward Braddock was routed by a force of French and Indians before Fort Duquesne on the site of the present city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the English gained the military initiative under the political leadership of the Elder Pitt (William Pitt). Jeffrey Amherst captured Louisbourg. In 1759 General James Wolfe defeated the Marquis Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham under the walls of the fortress of Quebec, and the war was all but over.

In 1764 the cost of governing the colonies was £350,000 a year, while colonial trade brought at least £2 million into Great Britain. Yet the Seven Years' War had created a war debt of £130 million. British land owners, who controlled Parliament, already paid a tax of 20 percent, and they refused to pay more. Prime Minister George Grenville estimated the average English taxpayer paid an annual tax of 26 shillings, while a British subject living in Massachusetts paid one shilling a year and the average Virginian only 5 pence. Grenville argued that, since the colonials had gained the most from the French and Indian War, they should do their part in paying off the war debt.

Since Great Britain did not want to pay for more Indian wars, Parliament passed the Proclamation Act of 1763, which forbade the colonists from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains. The colonists had fought the French primarily to gain control of the western lands, and they were angered over these restrictions, which were difficult to enforce.

In 1764 Britain passed the Sugar Act, the first of several revenue measures passed to try to reduce Britain's war debts. The tax on molasses, used to make rum, a valuable commodity in the slave trade, prior to the 1764 act was 6 pence a pound. American merchants felt that this tax was so high that they were morally justified in ignoring it and paying a bribe of a penny or two to customs agents. If they were arrested, they could usually count on local juries to acquit them. The Sugar Act struck at both of these problems. It reformed and enlarged the customs service, slashed the tax to 3 pence a pound, and set up a new system of courts that would try customs violators without juries. The colonists protested by boycotting British imports. Britain responded to this pressure by reducing the tax in 1766 to a penny a barrel.

In 1765 Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required that legal documents, newspapers, pamphlets, playing cards, and hand bills be taxed. A stamp was affixed to the taxed object to show that the tax had been paid. This act caused an uproar in the colonies. Local Sons of Liberty groups were formed to protest the act and to enforce a boycott of British goods.

In October 1765 thirty-seven delegates from nine colonies assembled in New York City to oppose the Stamp Act. This Stamp Act Congress was the first time representatives of most of the colonists met together. The legal question was whether or not Parliament, a legislative body to which the colonists elected no members, had the right to impose taxes on the colonists. The colonists maintained that under custom and the British constitution only their own elected colonial assemblies could do so. This was expressed in the slogan "no taxation without representation." The colonists asserted the claim that they could not be taxed without their consent and that colonial legislatures held taxation powers equivalent to those of Parliament. Representatives to the colonial legislatures and local councils were elected by propertied citizens on a district basis, but leaders of Parliament argued that every English subject was "virtually" represented in the English Parliament. They contended that even though a member of Parliament was elected from a specific geographic district, he legally represented the interests of the citizens of the empire at large. Actually the interests of unrepresented constituents were of small concern to members elected by the tenth of the English adult male population that voted for Parliament, and the colonials regarded this doctrine of virtual representation sophistry.

Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766 in response to colonial pressure, but at the same time it passed the Declaratory Act, which reaffirmed parliamentary supremacy. In 1767 the chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townshend, imposed duties on paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea imported into the colonies. Colonial objections and boycotts caused trade to fall off by 50 percent, which made Parliament back down. The Townshend Acts were repealed in 1770 except for a 3-pence tax on tea. For the next three years no new taxes or duties were imposed on the colonies, and the protests subsided.

However, large numbers of British soldiers were stationed in the colonies, and tension developed between them and the colonists. On 5 March 1770 a Boston crowd began heckling and throwing snowballs at a group of British soldiers. The soldiers panicked and fired into the crowd, killing five people. This "Boston Massacre" motivated the colonists to form committees of correspondence to keep each other informed about events throughout the colonies. In 1772 a group of colonists boarded the British customs vessel Gaspee after it had run aground, seriously wounded the ship's captain, then burned the ship.

In 1773 Parliament granted the British East India Company a monopoly on tea. This monopoly was not intended to hurt or tax American merchants but to help the financially strapped East India Company. The act allowed the East India Company to handle both the shipping and the sale of its tea, which prior to the act had been sold by the company at public auction. This act would lower the price of tea, but competing merchants like John Hancock would be stripped of an important source of revenue. The colonists feared that other British companies might gain similar privileges at their expense.

The colonists responded to the tea monopoly with a tea boycott. On 16 December 1773 about 150 Bostonians disguised as Indians climbed aboard three British merchant ships loaded with tea that had been waiting in Boston Harbor for the opportunity to unload their cargo. In less than three hours 342 chests of tea were thrown over-board. Parliament retaliated in 1774 with the Coercive Acts, which the colonials called the Intolerable Acts. These acts (1) closed the port of Boston until the destroyed tea was paid for, (2) suspended self-government in Massachusetts, (3) allowed trials of colonists to be moved to other colonies or to Britain, and (4) allowed soldiers to be quartered in private homes. Britain hoped the Coercive Acts would isolate Massachusetts and set an example. Instead the Coercive Acts united the colonies.

In response to the Intolerable Acts the First Continental Congress met in September 1774 and agreed to a boycott of English goods. In response to the Boston Tea Party and the colonial boycott, Britain moved more soldiers to the colonies. In 1775 seven hundred soldiers of the British army marched out of Boston to arrest the colonial leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock and to capture colonial military supplies in the towns of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. The colonists called up their militia to resist the British. When the British arrived at Lexington early in the morning of 19 April, seventy "minutemen" were there to meet them. Someone fired a shot, and during several volleys eight colonials were killed. The British then marched to Concord, where a larger group of Americans opened fire on them. Surprised and alarmed by the extent of the resistance, the British retreated to Boston and were fired upon most of the way. The British lost 73 dead, 174 wounded, and 26 missing, 20 percent of the British soldiers. American losses were 49 dead and 39 wounded. The War for Independence had begun.

The American colonies declared their independence on 4 July 1776. The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, was based on the natural rights ideas of European political philosophers, especially the English philosopher John Locke, and was derived from many of the reforms proposed during the two English civil wars but not fully adopted in Britain. Many of the questions raised by the Americans and the American Revolution brought amelioration of British colonial policy elsewhere in the British Empire after 1783.


Gipson, Lawrence Henry. The British Empire before the American Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1939–1970.

Rose, J. Holland, A. P. Newton, and E. A. Benians, eds. Cambridge History of the British Empire. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan, 1929–.


See alsoContinental Congress ; andvol. 9:Stamp Act ; The Writ of Assistance, 1762 ; Townshend Revenue Act .

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