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English Imperial System


Roots. Before any in-depth study of the British American colonies can be done, it is necessary to first examine them in their English imperial context. In many ways the colonial governments that evolved over time reflected more and more their English roots. It is clear that the engine of time did not alter the average colonists self perception that he was English. If anything, that perception increased with time. For that reason, a look at the British imperial system, especially as it related to colonial politics and government, is in order.

Direct Crown Control. Colonial governments were not uniform; that is, they varied substantially in settlement organization and in political maturity. Different circumstances dictated each colonys origin and function. Vital to understanding this fluctuation is to understand also the simultaneous fluctuations that transpired in England throughout the American colonial era. Yet, even with the changing royal scene through time, one motivation remained relatively constant: the English monarchs intended to have direct control of the American colonies.

Divine Right. The first permanent English settlements began during the reign of James I, who with his emphasis on the divine right of kings, held direct control over early colonial policy. James Is court administration of Jamestown was called Our Council of Virginia. This royal council established in 1606 was the first of its kind for the exclusive purpose of administering the American settlements. Even though at this stage the English monarchy did not see the vital importance of the American colonies as much as it would later, the early Stuart doctrine of divine right at least partially explains the English notion of direct control over its new provinces. This does not suggest that the Jamestown (1607) and Plymouth (1620) settlements did not view their own existence, especially after their charter companies failed and lost jurisdiction, as strongly autonomous. Yet, from the early Stuart perspective the colonies answered ultimately to the Crown. It is important to note that such a strong royal prerogative early on left neither side believing that the provinces were sister communities of England but rather were dependent local jurisdictions.

Privy Council. Under Charles I the administration of colonial policy initially came under the jurisdiction of the Privy Council, sometimes called the King in Council. The Privy Council had long served previous monarchs in advisory, judicial, and executive capacities. After 1634, due to the growing Puritan migrations to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Charles I extended the Privy Councils operations by creating a separate standing committee under William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury and out-spoken

critic of the Puritans, to deal more directly with colonial policies. This new committee of the Privy Council, called the Commission of Plantations, represented a degree of royal involvement that the colonies had not yet seen. Charles I, like his father James I, believed in the divine right doctrine. The Privy Council, with this newly created Commission of Plantations, served as a direct arm of the kings practice of this doctrine since it required his approval for any action. Although in reality Charles accomplished little with this committee, it nevertheless reflected the royal attitudes of dominion toward the American colonies.

Parliament. Charles, with his dire need for money to finance his policies, recalled Parliament in 1640 (it had been dissolved since 1629). Parliament then made its own attempts to govern the distant American settlements. It appointed the Committee of Plantations to operate under the direction of the earl of Warwick. This committees effectiveness, however, was hampered by the ensuing Civil War (1642-1649), a war that would depose the monarchy for eleven years.

Committee for Trade and Plantations. In 1650 the Council of State, which directed governmental affairs in the three years prior to Oliver Cromwells ascension as head of state, created the Committee for Trade and Plantations to oversee colonial affairs. This committee started out with considerable activity by sending commissioners into the Chesapeake region to gain greater administrative control. It also passed the first Navigation Act (1651) which stipulated that only English vessels could transport certain colonial cargo. Cromwell, who became the executive head of the Commonwealth in 1653, had high hopes that due to his sympathies with the Puritans he would be able to implement necessary levels of control. He replaced the Council of State, which was over the Committee for Trade and Plantations, with the Council of the Protector, and it became the primary administrative body over the American provinces. Yet, whether from the Crown, Commonwealth, or Lord Protectorate, early colonists consistently resisted complete subjugation by aligning with the Confederation of New England, which had been formed in 1643. In truth, during both the Interregnum and the Lord Protectorate there was little need for overt resistance on the colonists part due to the attention England necessarily gave to internal as well as satellite colonial affairs (revolts in Scotland and Ireland).

Council of Plantations. In 1660 Charles II, who had been in exile for eleven years, ascended to the throne. In the first year of this Restoration era Charles created yet another bureaucratic body for colonial administration, the Council for Foreign Plantations. This committee was later (1670) renamed simply the Council of Plantations. This body proved ineffective. In 1672 the Committee of Plantations and the recently formed Council of Trade combined as one committee with commercial and governmental oversight duties. Finally in 1675, due to this bodys budgeting problems, the renewed Privy Council once again assumed responsibility for the colonies and appointed a committee called the Lords of Trade.

Lords of Trade. Lasting for twenty-one years (1675-1696), the Lords of Trade proved to be the most effective colonial oversight board since the beginning of American settlement. One reason for this effectiveness was that the American colonies began to matter more to Britain. England came to see the colonies, due to their rapid growth in population, as much more vital to English military and economic interests. But the immediate success of the Lords of Trade was due to its specific objectives.

Goals. The Lords of Trade had three overall goals. One was to create greater Crown control of the then four royal colonies (Virginia, Jamaica, Barbados, and the Leeward Islands). This was done by careful oversight of gubernatorial appointments and by the subsequent issuance of instructionsspecifically outlined orders that the governor was to follow strictly. Along with these controls, the Lords of Trade also sought to limit provincial assemblies, which had, in Englands view, gained too much autonomy by assuming sovereignty over financial matters in the respective colonies. A second goal was to hamper further efforts for the creation of private colonies and to eventually transfer the existing ones under direct royal control. Massachusetts Bay lost New Hampshire, which became a royal colony under this policy. The policy was not always successful, as in the case of William Penns charter in 1681, but Penn did have greater than normal limitations on his proprietorship. The most noted attempt in the implementation of this goal was the successful reversal in 1684 of the Massachusetts Bay charter due to that colonys failure to abide by the Navigation Acts. Two years later this reversal led to the third overall goal of the Lords of Trade: centralization of colonial control through the Dominion of New England. The Dominion of New England included all the colonies northeast of the Delaware River. Even with the advances made toward greater consolidation, however, the mistrust that plagued the relationship between Parliament and Charles II insured that the Lords of Trade could not satisfactorily consolidate colonial policy. With the ascension of James II, that mistrust intensified until his removal in 1688, which also led to the downfall of the Dominion of New England. Even with the unity that emerged between Parliament and William III after the Glorious Revolution, the Lords of Trade were given fewer and fewer responsibilities in colonial oversight until it was replaced in 1696 by the Board of Trade.

Board of Trade. William III commissioned the Board of Trade in 1696. The Boards longevity (until 1782) attests to its effectiveness in administering colonial affairs. The Board of Trade was of design made up of sixteen landed gentrymen, as opposed to the merchant class, to avoid possible conflicts of interest relating to colonial trade. Although the Board was not officially under the Privy Council, it issued reports both to it and to the Crowns assigned minister of colonial affairs, the secretary of state for the Southern Department. The Board of Trade was responsible for gubernatorial instructions, insuring that colonial legislation did not conflict with assigning members to colonial councils. The Boards effectiveness did wane from time to time, especially due to countermeasures employed by powerful ministers. Sir Robert Walpole, for example, whose ministry lasted from 1721 to 1742, stressed a relaxation of governmental intervention in colonial affairs except in extreme cases when major economic or political issues were at stake. This tendency gave the colonies room to expand while at the same time benefiting the mother country. The royal governors especially were able to operate in the best interest of the parent state without having to be constantly on guard against reprimands from home for failing to enforce the long established Maxims of the Board of Trade. In retrospect, therefore, the waning of the Board of Trades power through a policy of less intervention, as in Walpoles ministry, at least gave the appearance that it was functioning effectively for both colonies and empire.

Admiralty and Vice Admiralty. Another English department important in the colonial governmental structure was the High Court of Admiralty. The Admiralty originated in the fourteenth century and was given the power in maritime affairs that the common-law courts had in land cases. As maritime issues and cases increased in the colonies over time, the need for a recognized Admiralty Court jurisdiction in the provinces became evident. In 1697 Vice-Admiralty courts were assigned to operate within the American colonies with considerable judicial powers relating to the high seas. Vice-Admiralty courts were placed in the colonies by the Board of Trade primarily to enforce the Acts of Trade and Navigation. Of particular offense to many colonists was the absence of trial by jury within this court. The Vice-Admiralty judge of a given region had sole authority in deciding cases that came to him. Over time the courts jurisdiction included matters only indirectly related to its original sphere of maritime authority. For example, under a 1722 act of Parliament the Vice-Admiralty courts gained authorization in New England to enforce the kings broad arrow policy, which forbade the cutting of any white pines that had a diameter of at least twenty-four inches. Such trees were needed for the manufacturing of masts on English merchant ships. The surveyor general was to mark these trees with the kings broad arrow. But even if he found such a tree felled without the marking, the perpetrators would face prosecution. Cases such as these as well as other overzealous seizures of ships and cargo by the Vice Admiralty have often clouded the positive role it played in the colonies. The judges had the responsibility to defend the human and economic rights of sailors during a time when such rights were often violated by ship captains. They also aided crews, foreign or otherwise, who were in distress from lack of food or an unseaworthy vessel. Though often justly ridiculed for improper actions, the Vice-Admiralty courts on the whole did serve a useful function in British colonial affairs.

Southern Department. Beginning in the early eighteenth century the one official most immediately concerned with colonial oversight was the secretary of state for the Southern Department. The secretary of state had long been a powerful intermediary agent for the king, particularly in foreign affairs. Eventually the office was divided between northern and southern European interests. Included in the southern geographic region were the American colonies. The secretary of state for the Southern Department had authority to personally go before the monarch to report on or petition for political, military, and economic concerns related to the colonies. He also communicated with the Board of Trade on a whole range of economic issues.

Governors. Of the powers held by the secretary, one of the most important was the appointment of royal governors. Although the Board of Trade issued the governors instructions, a duty that opened the door to many patronage (to appoint for other than meritorious reasons) possibilities, the secretarys power of appointment left many would-be and incumbent governors beholden to him. He was also the channel through which the royal governors communicated to the king. All types of motives, often financial, drove aspirants to seek gubernatorial appointments from the secretary of state of the Southern Department. For example, in 1732 the duke of Kent wrote on behalf of Christian Cole for the governorship of North Carolina stating that Cole was a very honest intelligent and knowing person in all business, but, the duke continued, his misfortune has been to have lost in the South Seas..., which makes him desirous to leave his own country and to go abroad and would be very happy to have your Graces favor and protection for his employment. One of the more unusual reasons to seek a governorship was that of the earl of Kinnoul. The earl had been stationed as a British representative in Turkey until his alleged bad reputation cost him the position. In 1738 he requested to become governor of Barbados to prove to others that his reputation remained intact. To the secretary he wrote, My lord, if the king is so good as to give me the government of Barbados at this time, it will justify me in the eyes of all the world; whereas, if I do not soon receive some such public mark of his Majestys favor, the greater part of mankind will have reason to think that my accusers were in the right and that I did not discharge my duty in Turkey as I ought to have done.... Therefore, as my reputation is concerned at this time as well as my support in the world, I must beg your Grace seriously to consider my case. In neither of the above cases did the applicants win the offices. These examples illustrate nonetheless the potential power of patronage the secretary of state for the Southern Department had.

Treasury. One of the least emphasized but important English governmental departments related to the colonies was the Treasury. The Treasury held the responsibility of collecting tariff duties. It also functioned as an auditing agency on accounts in the colonies. A constant dilemma in the royal colonies was that the governors, on the one hand, depended heavily on local assemblies to finance their administrations, and on the other hand faced the ever-present threat of giving too much power to that representative body. After 1680 the Board of Trade regularly included in the governors instructions the requirement that twice a year he send to the Treasury certified fair books of accounts reflecting a complete showing of a given colonys financial records. With this ex post facto regulation was the requirement of the royal governor to receive pre approval from England for all appropriations originating in the assemblies. These regulations were primarily given as a check on the local assemblies and as a means to insure that the raising of revenue had the mother countrys interest at heart. Other duties of the Treasury included expenditure authorization and the regulation of customs. Interestingly, the Treasury possessed more potential power in the proprietary and private-charter colonies since fewer royal officials existed in these provinces. Due to the local assemblies ever-increasing assertion, especially after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, that they possessed the localized power of a House of Commons, royal attempts at fiscal control through the Board of Trade and the Treasury never reached their intended goals.


Charles M. Andrews, The Colonial Period of American History, volume 4, Englands Commercial and Colonial Policy (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1938);

George Louis Beer, The Origins of the British Colonial System, 15781660 (New York: Peter Smith, 1933);

Ralph Paul Bieber, The Lords of Trade and Plantations, 1675-1696 (Allentown, Pa.: H. Ray Hass & Company, 1919);

George Dargo, Roots of the Republic: A New Perspective on Early American Constitutionalism (New York: Praeger, 1974);

Jack P. Greene, Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Policies of the British Empire and the United States, 1607-1788 (New York: Norton, 1986);

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

English Imperial System

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