Government, Colonial, in British America

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Government, Colonial, in British America

There were three main forms of government tried in the American colonies: government by company; by proprietor(s); and by the Crown. Most of the earliest colonies were settled by companies, groups of powerful individuals in England who obtained a charter from the king granting them a right to settle. Modelled on the great English trading companies such as the Muscovy Company and the East India Company, the Virginia Company pioneered American colonization by founding Jamestown in 1607. Although the Virginia Company had a disastrous history and eventually lost its royal charter in 1624, the leading English politicians retained their faith in the company model of settlement, chartering, for instance, the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629. But whereas the Virginia Company, based in London, had found it difficult to direct colonization in America from such a distance, the Puritan merchants who founded the Massachusetts Bay Company actually went to America themselves, and took their charter with them.

After 1630 the Crown no longer granted colonization rights in America to companies, preferring to deal with individuals, or groups of individuals, it termed proprietors. Between 1634 and 1681 almost every new English settlement in the Americas was a proprietory colony. Leading English Catholic Lord Baltimore (1605–1675) was made proprietor of Maryland in 1634; a number of English nobles and adventurers became proprietors of Carolina in 1663 and of the Bahamas in 1670; James, duke of York, (1633–1701) became proprietor of New York in 1664; and Quaker William Penn (1644–1718) became proprietor of Pennsylvania in 1681. The proprietors were granted enormous, royal-like, powers over their territories, and all came into conflict with settlers about the role that representative assemblies would play in the government of the colony. Virginia had been granted a House of Burgess by the Virginia Company in 1619, Bermuda by the Somers Isles Company in 1620, and the Massachusetts General Court was formed soon after the first settlement in Boston in 1630. English settlers else-where in America agitated for representative assemblies, and most proprietors eventually granted some form of representative democracy in their territories. The proprietory government of Barbados and the Leeward Islands, for instance, permitted the creation of assemblies on most islands between 1639 and 1670. Franchises were often more open than in England because property qualifications were met more easily in land-rich colonies such as Virginia, though in Massachusetts the franchise was limited to full church members and therefore excluded significant numbers not in communion with the Congregational church. All colonies enjoyed a degree of latitude from English control and were able to pass laws that did not conform to English common law, though the Crown was not above intervening when it thought necessary, for instance, to end the persecution of Quakers in Massachusetts in 1660.

Many colonists found common cause with their English cousins following the accession of James II in 1685 (1633–1701). James's reluctance to create an assembly in New York was regarded as typical of his attitude toward representative government by many colonists, and when he instituted whole-scale reforms of the colonial system in the 1680s it triggered a rebellion. The individual charters of the New England colonies were revoked, and the separate territories were merged, together with New York, into the Dominion of New England. James appointed his staunch supporter, Edmund Andros (1637–1714) as governor of the new Dominion, and rode roughshod over the objections of elected assemblies and officials in America. When James's absolutist tendencies led to his overthrow in England and the accession of William of Orange (1650–1702), rebellions quickly followed in Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland. Those seen as pro-Catholic or pro-James were ousted, and popular sovereignty was restored.

While the charters of most individual colonies in New England were returned, they had been altered in one significant respect. William gradually began to abolish the system of proprietory colonies and replace them with royal colonies. Virginia and a number of the West Indian islands had been royal colonies since the 1620s, but now most New England colonies, New York, and Bermuda also came under the direct control of the Crown. Each colony was granted a form of representative government, but with an appointed colonial council and a governor who was ultimately answerable to government officials in London, especially those in the newly created Board of Trade. Only Connecticut and Rhode Island retained the right to choose their own governors.

However, the extension of royal control over the American colonies did not lead to greater interference from London in the day-to-day affairs of colonial government. William was far too distracted with European wars, and the Hanoverians who acceded in 1715 showed little initial interest in America. Apart from the regulation of trade, the American colonial governments were left to develop as they pleased, and this period of "salutory neglect" has often been credited with encouraging an American sense of independent government. Governors were often dependent on their assemblies for their salaries, a situation that tended to make most governors cooperate with, rather than obstruct, the elected chamber. Therefore, although nominal control rested with the governor, in reality colonial government rested with the elected assemblies. Certainly with the North American continent secure following the defeat of France in the French and Indian War (1756–1763) in 1763, the attempt by British ministers to re-exert some form of control over the colonies was fiercely resisted by colonial governments used to making these sorts of decisions alone. Well-established, popularly elected colonial, such as those in Virginia and Massachusetts, felt justified in defending their autonomy. It is noticeable that in the newer colonies such as Georgia, Quebec, and East and West Florida, where representative democracy was in its infancy, or non-existent, opposition to British tactics was much more muted. The position of the West Indian islands is harder to explain. Democratic institutions had been long established on most islands, but the ruling white elite was numerically small and closely modelled on the English aristocracy. Children were educated in British schools and universities and each generation reaffirmed cultural ties to Britain in ways that mainland colonies simply did not. Moreover, elite colonists were well aware of their reliance on the British navy for defense against the French and against possible slave uprisings. For the Caribbean colonies, the advantages of ties to Britain clearly outweighed the disadvantages.

The robust response by several elected governments in mainland America to attempts by successive British administrations to tax them revolved around the historic rights of Englishmen regarding representative government. In America such rights were regarded as inalienable, and indeed had been safeguarded by the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the Bill of Rights; the assemblies in America considered themselves sister institutions to those in England. In Britain many politicians considered that these rights were only applicable against royal or absolutist power, and not against an elected body such as Parliament. The American assemblies were seen as secondary bodies under the control of the supreme imperial assembly in Westminster. These very different conceptions of the relationship between Britain and its colonies were to prove irreconcilable and to end in the American War of Independence (1776–1783).

see also Native Americans and Europeans.


Breen, Tim. The Character of the Good Ruler: A Study of Puritan Political Ideals in New England, 1630–1730. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970.

Jordan, David. Foundations of Representative Government in Maryland, 1632–1715. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Labaree, Leonard. Royal Government in America; a Study of the British Colonial System Before 1783. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1958.

Lovejoy, David. The Glorious Revolution in America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

Pole, Jack. Political Representation in England and the Origins of the American Republic. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1966.

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Government, Colonial, in British America