Introduction to the Colonial Era (1585–1763)

views updated

Introduction to the Colonial Era (1585–1763)

The English men and women who ventured across the vast expanse of ocean to the New World took few things with them: tools of their trades, perhaps, a few clothes, provisions for a lengthy voyage, their Bibles. All of them boarded the small wooden ships with some kind of experience with the English government and court system—they had all paid taxes, for example, and many understood debtors’ prison—but relatively few had intimate knowledge of how government and politics operated and how to make them work for the common good.

In addition, they sailed out of English ports expecting a wide variety of rewards for their effort. Some sought pure adventure. Others expected to find huge deposits of precious metals that would make them wealthy. Far more of them hoped only to find a land of plenty, with open space and an opportunity to improve their lives. They left behind a crowded England, where working and living conditions were generally poor. Still others needed to find a religious haven or, in many cases, simply to leave their pasts behind.

That they could create competent, effective governments out of the initial chaos borders on miracle. While colonial institutions all related in some way to the English parliamentary system, the distances between settlements and the lack of infrastructure, especially in the early days, tested the success of that system. Literacy was not widespread. Survival was a primary concern. The colonies started out as largely agrarian communities, dealing with the hardships of frontier life: famine, disease, severe weather, and unfriendly native people were constant threats.

The charter of each colony authorized some form of representative government; the structure and authority of that government, however, varied according to the intentions of the founders. Some colonies were moneymaking ventures, intended to reap profits for investors in England. Decisions made by the colonists could be vetoed if they worked against company interests. Some colonies, such as Maryland, were run by sole proprietors, who often acted as autocrats, although they quickly discovered that representative government made their operations run more efficiently. In other colonies freedom of religion and conscience were paramount, affecting every facet of governmental procedure.

None of the colonies could be described as a democracy. Only “freemen” were allowed to vote and hold office. Freemen usually had to be landowners, with a specific amount of land required. Usually they had to have reached age twenty-one and be members of the established church. Women, nonwhites, indentured servants, apprentices, and others were excluded. Significantly, all the settlers were aware of class structure and where they fit into it. It made some of them confident, while others chafed in the colonies, as they had in England.

All of the colonies experienced internal turbulence, caused at times by the arrival of waves of new settlers and quite often by the arbitrary desires of the monarch and Parliament thousands of miles away. That they weathered the setbacks can be traced largely to a few natural leaders who rose up, instilled order and cohesiveness, and cleared a path to success. Usually those leaders relied heavily on the colonists’ pride in being Englishmen and Englishwomen. They knew their rights and privileges. They fought for them. Clearly their plantings bore large fruit.

About this article

Introduction to the Colonial Era (1585–1763)

Updated About content Print Article


Introduction to the Colonial Era (1585–1763)