1600-1754: Government and Politics: Overview
1600-1754: Government and Politics: Overview
English Precedents. It is vital when studying colonial history to recognize that the American provinces descended from and were still part of a rich Old World past. It is a mistake to automatically place the colonies into a single English context. Colonies such as New York and Florida had their beginnings with the Dutch and Spanish respectively. Many non-English settlers—German, French, Swiss, etc., populated much of the American landscape. Of course, the thousands of slaves living throughout the colonies did not have an English past. Yet, notwithstanding the rich ethnicity, one finds when examining the government and politics of the overall scene that by the mid to late seventeenth century a predominant English presence existed. Subjects pertinent to provincial and local government such as legal administrative structures (courts, judges, juries), law enforcement offices (sheriffs, constables, watches), legislative bodies (councils and assemblies), executives (governors), town, borough, and county offices simply cannot be understood apart from their English origins. The American colonists were and saw themselves as decidedly English.
Increased Anglicization. The often-asserted idea that colonists over time saw themselves less as English and more as autonomous Americans is questionable. The very fact that they did develop independent attitudes can arguably be attributed to an increased perception of their role in the world as Englishmen. This mentality became especially recognizable after the Glorious Revolution in 1688. From this momentous event, when Parliament asserted a more authoritative role, a two-edged sword hung over the British Empire. One edge slowly drew offense in the minds of provincial leaders. Nonrepresentative parliamentary jurisdiction in the colonies did not sit well with those prone to assert their rights as Englishmen. On the other hand, the renewed power of Parliament encouraged those same leaders to imitate that authority in their provincial assemblies. Thus, for example, the rise of the assembly in provincial America was not so much an assertion of Americanization as it was of Anglicization.
Diversity and Transition. Even with the strong English presence it is important to remember that colonial government and political structures were not static. That is, from province to province they were different, and through time each one experienced relatively significant transitions throughout the period. There were basically three types of English settlements: company-chartered, privately chartered (covenant or proprietary), and royal. Some of the earlier settlements (Jamestown, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) were company or privately chartered. Connecticut and Rhode Island, for example, were settled based on private, covenant-oriented charters with no direct royal sanction. In 1632, starting with Maryland, a different type of privately chartered colony emerged—the proprietary. Proprietary colonies, such as Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Maryland, had royal charters, but they were charters that gave almost complete sovereignty (Pennsylvania excepted) to the individual proprietors. Each colony proprietary or privately chartered (company and covenant) reflected individual government structures unique to its own goals of settlement.
Royal Control. By the mid eighteenth century most colonies had made the transition to direct royal control. Even with this trend, differences in emphasis remained. This was particularly true of local government structures. New England colonies, for instance, which were the most resistant to royal control, conducted their civil business primarily through the town meeting. The Middle Colonies, possibly reflective of greater ethnic and religious heterogeneity, were more diverse in local government functions. No one system (town, borough, city, or county) seemed to dominate as in New England. The Chesapeake was more county-oriented, whereas the lower southern region, especially South Carolina, placed a greater emphasis on the parish vestry. Law-enforcement procedures also reflect the differences in the American colonies. Those regions with more proactive Christian enforcement (Puritan New England) tended to equate sin with crime. Elsewhere a greater differentiation between the two existed. The difference had a very noticeable impact on the crime rate, or at least the conviction rate, between New England and other regions (except possibly Virginia, which by the eighteenth century had developed an effective law-enforcement system through elite social control). The strongly Puritan New Haven colony, for example, from 1638 to 1658 had a 93 percent conviction rate, whereas North Carolina never went above a 25 percent conviction rate.
Similarities. Even with the significant differences on both the provincial and local levels, and particularly in law enforcement, there were certain common governmental characteristics throughout the colonies worth noting. The basic overall provincial structure included a governor, council, and assembly. Granted, the roles of these government entities may have differed from colony to colony, but essentially the functions of each, especially when most colonies became royal (a demonstrable commonality in itself), were, if not exactly the same, very similar. The governor was the chief representative of either the proprietor or the Crown. He often held executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The council, almost always appointed, served as the primary advisory board to the governor and, especially early on, as a prominent legislative and judicial body, often as a check on the assembly. The elected assemblies, modeled on the House of Commons, the lower house of Britain’s Parliament, initiated all money and most other bills. The overriding similarity of the assembly throughout the colonies was its representative role for the common freeholder (or landowner). The assembly became the essential link for the common insistence of English rights, especially as those rights related to the private ownership of property. The increased call for greater representative government, especially after the Glorious Revolution, was parallel with a growing insistence to be treated as respectable Englishmen.
Attempt at Centralization. In 1685, an attempt from the Crown to centralize the colonies materialized in what was called the Dominion of New England. The Duke of York, who became King James II in 1685, sought to unite the Northern colonies in order to gain control of their governmental structures. The immediate objective was to bring the New England colonies into compliance with the Navigation Acts and to obtain a more unified front against the French. Once Edmund Andros took over as governor of the Dominion in 1686 (with headquarters in Boston), he nominally extended its authority as far south as New Jersey. The successful replacement of James II with William III and Mary in 1688 resulted in the collapse of the Dominion of New England. England never successfully reinstituted another centralization of colonial governments after that time.
Rebellions. The period of our study was checkered with rebellions. Some of the more significant ones were direct attempts to overthrow existing governments. Aside from the general similarity of wresting power, the motives were often different. In 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia was an attempt by Nathaniel Bacon and his followers to change Governor Sir William Berkeley’s favored land policies both toward the Indians and the governor’s inner circle elite. Leisler’s Rebellion in New York, which came on the heels of the Glorious Revolution, was a reaction born of religious fervor and fear. Almost simultaneous to Leisler’s Rebellion, the Protestant Association in Maryland managed to gain control over that colony’s government and subsequently called upon the Crown to take it over. Thus, until 1715 Maryland was a royal colony until it reverted to the Calvert family’s (who had by now turned Protestant) proprietary control. Not born of religious motives but with the same outcome as in Maryland was the 1719 revolt against the proprietary government in South Carolina. The rebellion ended with South Carolina becoming a royal colony in 1721. This was not the first rebellion in the Carolinas against the proprietors. In 1677 John Culpeper led farmers on the northern coast in protest of unfair customs duties. Possibly the most significant similarity among these rebellions is what was not present—anti-Crown sentiment. In fact, the very opposite was true. Granted, Leisler’s Rebellion in New York and the Protestant Association’s rebellion in Maryland were initially against James II because of his outspoken Catholicism. These rebellions did not get under way until their leaders perceived themselves in concert with parliamentary actions in England. Nathaniel Bacon did direct his actions against the existing royal government in Virginia, but his was a local dispute, not one with the Crown. It is significant, therefore, that royal governments, though at the provincial level, were the objects of attack, in no case were those attacks leveled at the concept of English rule, but rather at English rule that in their minds had gone awry. Moreover, the antiproprietary rebellions were in themselves appeals for royal intervention.
Political Stability. The growth of political stability is a most important factor in the study of colonial America. With Maryland and North Carolina as arguable exceptions, the mainland English colonies experienced increased political stability from early in the seventeenth century to around 1750. That stability did not wane significantly until the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Most of the colonies, with the exception of Massachusetts, exemplified considerable instability early on. Contributors to this early political flux included a less viable economy and a sparse and gender-imbalanced population resulting in both a small pool from which to choose qualified leaders and a lack of community cohesion. From around 1710 through the 1750s, an increase in population and a decrease in direct Crown control, among other important factors, led to a considerable increase in political stability. Of course, it is always a mistake to treat this phenomenon as a blanket event. That is, its levels of actuality differed from colony to colony and period to period. But it is true that on balance, the American colonies, starting in the early 1700s, experienced several decades of growing political stability.
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