Colonial Assemblies

views updated May 21 2018


COLONIAL ASSEMBLIES had their beginnings in the Virginia House of Burgesses, which Governor George Yeardley convened in 1619. After the Sandys-Southampton group gained control of the Virginia Company, they initiated a new policy that provided for a unicameral assembly composed of the governor, his council, and two burgesses to represent each town, plantation, and hundred. Subsequently, the counties, along with certain priveleged towns and cities, comprised the units of representation. In the latter part of the seventeenth century the elected representatives separated from the parent assembly, creating a bicameral legislature. From the start, the Virginia assembly claimed and exercised the right to initiate legislation, and under Governor John Harvey asserted the right to control taxation. After Governor Sir William Berkeley's withdrawal from public life in 1652 the House of Burgesses exercised great authority with little outside interference except for the limitations the Navigation Act of 1651 placed on commerce. When Berkeley returned to power in 1662, he failed to call elections and retained the old assembly until Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. Due to popular resentment of his attempt to control the legislature, the assembly reverted to its representative character after Bacon's Rebellion.

As in Virginia, other southern colonies witnessed fluctuation in the balance of power between colonial assemblies, colonists, and proprietors or royal governors. Upon coming into possession of his Maryl and proprietary, Cecilius Calvert, 2d Baron Baltimore, called an assembly of freemen. He attempted to establish the principle that the proprietor alone might initiate legislation, and sent over drafts of a series of measures. The assembly rejected them, claiming sole powers of initiation, and passed a number of bills framed by its own members. Although Baltimore rejected these, claiming they violated his rights, he finally acknowledged the assembly's competence to initiate laws. He insisted, however, that the legislature submit all measures to him for acceptance or rejection. In seventeenth-century Carolina, the divergent aims of the proprietors and settlers confused legislative processes. The settlers were determined to uphold the binding nature of the so-called Concessions and Agreement of 1665, which provided for a popularly elected assembly of freeholders. In opposition to this, the proprietors attempted to enforce the feudal Fundamental Constitutions with its complicated lawmaking machinery designed to guarantee proprietarial control of legislation. As in Maryland, the proprietors (and later the royal governors) of Carolina had to compromise with the assemblies in order to govern effectively.

In New England colonial assemblies enjoyed considerable power. Plymouth set up a popular assembly consisting of all qualified freemen, which evolved into a bicameral body as the colony incorporated out-settlements. In Massachusetts Bay, Governor John Winthrop and his supporters attempted to concentrate legislative authority in the Court of Assistants, limiting the General Court to the activities of a court of election. This effort failed because the town deputies demanded that the colonial government observe the provisions of the royal charter, which called for a legislative body. After experimenting with a primary assembly of all freemen that featured proxy voting, a representative bicameral system evolved there as in Plymouth. The Massachusetts General Court was uniquely powerful among other colonial assemblies. As in most colonies, the lower house was popularly elected. The members of the lower house, in turn, elected the members of the council, or the upper house. In other colonies, the colonial governor performed this task, and the Massachusetts assembly's popular power became a bone of contention between Massachusetts and the British government in the 1770s. In Rhode Island, the towns were empowered to initiate legislation that they referred to the assembly. Conversely, the assembly would refer measures to the towns for their approval or disapproval. The system was ineffective, however, and the charter of 1663 gave the assembly a dominating role in all matters of government. Connecticut, under its Fundamental Orders of 1639, had a General Court that served as both a representative body and, upon sitting as a court of election, a primary assembly. The latter feature continued under the charter of 1662, although in the mid-eighteenth century it disappeared in favor of local election of colonial officials. As in Rhode Island, the Connecticut assembly was the real center of governmental authority and throughout the colonial period enjoyed great freedom from outside interference.

The powers that colonial assemblies exercised in the Middle Colonies varied widely. The Duke of York ruled New York for many years without the aid of any popularly elected body, much to the dissatisfaction of the English-speaking population. When Governor Edmund Andros retired to England in 1680, the settlers refused to pay imposts, which made it necessary for the Duke of York either to send an army to subdue the people, or to grant an assembly. He chose the latter course, sending Thomas Dongan as governor, but the laws passed by the deputies were never ratified, and James II forbade future assemblies upon ascending the throne. In 1684 he withdrew the Massachusetts charter and joined the New England colonies with New York, East Jersey, and West Jersey under the auspices of the Dominion of New England, in which lawmaking powers were centered not in the colonial assemblies, but in the appointed Dominion council. The Dominion collapsed with the conclusion of the Glorious Revolution in 1689, and the ascension of William and Mary initiated a period in which the royal government interfered little with colonial affairs. In contrast, Pennsylvania had a popularly elected assembly from its founding. In this colony, tensions emerged between the Quaker-dominated assembly and the increasingly diverse population. Particularly, western inhabitants objected to the Quakers' pacifist policies, which impeded the founding and funding of a colonial militia that might protect frontier residents against attacks by American Indians. As white settlers extended their claims in western Pennsylvania, there by intensifying conflicts with Indian groups who occupied that territory, they increasingly resented the Quaker assembly that refused to provide military support.

Tensions between the colonial assemblies, colonial governors, and the colonists themselves emerged throughout Anglo-America in the mid-eighteenth century. In Massachusetts Bay, contentious issues included appropriations for a permanent establishment and construction of forts, as well as the control of the office of speaker of the house of representatives. In New York and in New Jersey, as the result of Lord Cornbury's controversial administration, the assemblies gained new powers over financial disbursements and administration. In Pennsylvania, the French and Indian War ignited controversies over the issue of paper money, and the assembly's authority to tax proprietary lands. When Parliament threatened in 1756 to compel all office holders in Pennsylvania to take the required oaths (which violated Quaker tenets), many Quakers resigned in protest and a non-Quaker majority controlled the assembly for the first time. Conflicts with the governors, as a rule, left the assemblies in a strongly entrenched position, in spite of the continued control of colonial legislation on the part of the Privy Council.

With the approach of the Revolution, divisions between assemblies and governors in all of the colonies widened except in the two corporate colonies (Connecticut and Rhode Island). The degrees of friction varied, however, from the violent manifestations in Massachusetts Bay to the relatively friendly relations between Governor John Penn and the Pennsylvania assembly.


Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Bonomi, Patricia U. The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Lockridge, Kenneth A. Settlement and Unsettlement in Early America: The Crisis of Political Legitimacy before the Revolution. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

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

Morgan, Edmund S. Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. New York: Norton, 1988.

Lawrence HenryGipson/ShelbyBalik

See alsoCarolina, Fundamental Constitutions of ; Colonial Councils ; Colonial Settlements ; Duke of York's Proprietary ; General Court, Colonial .

Assemblies, Colonial

views updated May 14 2018


ASSEMBLIES, COLONIAL, were the standard for representative government. Initially, elected representatives met in joint sessions with the governor and the council, later becoming the lower house of the legislature. It took most colonies until the 1720s to develop bicameral bodies that met regularly and had sufficient internal organization and systematic record keeping. Most of an assembly's workload developed from petitions, or constituent requests to the assemblies. The assemblies increased in output and importance from 1730 to 1765. Most legislation utilized Britain's criminal and civil code that governed elite procedures and was not for the citizens at large; thus, government was kept small to minimize the tax burden.

Initially, legislation was passed simply at the behest of the governor and his council, but in the late seventeenth century, the lower houses began to assert their authority in order to counter threats to local autonomy from governors and royal appointees, reversing the balance of power that had been in place since the early 1600s. Internal proceedings concerning taxes and the budget were strengthened. As the lower houses controlled local revenue, they held the power to vote permanent incomes to executive officers, including the governor's salary.

The first colonial assembly was the Virginia House of Burgesses, created on 30 July 1619, with a governor, Sir George Yeardley, four members of the council, and two burgesses from each of the Virginia boroughs as a unicameral body enlisting the settlers' support for the decisions passed by the company headquarters in London. Not until 1628 did it have the ability to pass tax or other laws. Under the Massachusetts Bay Company, the second colonial representative body emerged in 1629, composed of all adult males who were full church members and thus freemen. In 1634, this membership was changed to two delegates from each town to attend the annual meeting, chaired by the governor and the Court of Assistants, later evolving into a representative bicameral body. Rhode Island's assembly, developed after 1663, had the dominant role in government; the elected governor had little power and the assembly made official appointments. Connecticut's assembly was similar until the middle of the eighteenth century, when it was replaced with local elections for colonial officials. In Maryland, the proprietor Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, struggled with the assembly, but finally allowed it to initiate laws on the condition that it submit them to him for acceptance or rejection. Carolina's eight divergent proprietors sought to enforce the feudal Fundamental Constitutions while the settlers upheld their right to a popular elected assembly of freeholders, guaranteed by the Concessions and Agreement of 1665. From the beginning, Pennsylvania had a popularly elected assembly, which clashed frequently with the Penn family proprietors, although in 1756, six pacifist Quakers resigned from the assembly in response to the threat of oaths required by Parliament, resulting in a short period of harmony between the legislature and executive. Conflicts with the governors consistently left the assemblies in an increasingly stronger position up to the Revolution.


Andrews, Charles McLean. Colonial Self-government, 1652–1689. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1904.

Bliss, Robert M. Revolution and Empire: English Politics and the American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1990.

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.

Sosin, Jack M. English America and Imperial Inconstancy: The Rise of Provincial Autonomy, 1696–1715. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Michelle M.Mormul

See alsoColonial Councils ; Colonial Policy, British ; House of Burgesses ; Representative Government .