Emergence of Colonial Government
In the early phases of colonial development, a striking
feature was the lack of controlling influence by the English
government. All colonies except Georgia emerged as companies of
shareholders, or as feudal proprietorships stemming from
charters granted by the Crown. The fact that the king had
transferred his immediate sovereignty over the New World
settlements to stock companies and proprietors did not, of
course, mean that the colonists in America were necessarily free
of outside control. Under the terms of the Virginia Company
charter, for example, full governmental authority was vested in
the company itself. Nevertheless, the crown expected that the
company would be resident in England. Inhabitants of Virginia,
then, would have no more voice in their government than if the
king himself had retained absolute rule.
Still, the colonies considered themselves chiefly as
commonwealths or states, much like England itself, having only a
loose association with the authorities in London. In one way or
another, exclusive rule from the outside withered away.
The colonists – inheritors of the long English tradition of the
struggle for political liberty – incorporated concepts of
freedom into Virginia's first charter. It provided that English
colonists were to exercise all liberties, franchises, and
immunities "as if they had been abiding and born within this our
Realm of England." They were, then, to enjoy the benefits of the
Magna Carta – the charter of English political and civil
liberties granted by King John in 1215 – and the common law –
the English system of law based on legal precedents or
tradition, not statutory law. In 1618 the Virginia Company
issued instructions to its appointed governor providing that
free inhabitants of the plantations should elect representatives
to join with the governor and an appointive council in passing
ordinances for the welfare of the colony.
These measures proved to be some of the most far‑reaching in
the entire colonial period. From then on, it was generally
accepted that the colonists had a right to participate in their
own government. In most instances, the king, in making future
grants, provided in the charter that the free men of the colony
should have a voice in legislation affecting them. Thus,
charters awarded to the Calverts in Maryland, William Penn in
Pennsylvania, the proprietors in North and South Carolina, and
the proprietors in New Jersey specified that legislation should
be enacted with "the consent of the freemen."
In New England, for many years, there was even more complete
self-government than in the other colonies. Aboard the
Mayflower, the Pilgrims adopted an instrument for government
called the "Mayflower Compact," to "combine ourselves together
into a civil body politic for our better ordering and
preservation ... and by virtue hereof [to] enact, constitute,
and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts,
constitutions, and offices ... as shall be thought most meet and
convenient for the general good of the colony. ..."
Although there was no legal basis for the Pilgrims to
establish a system of self-government, the action was not
contested, and, under the compact, the Plymouth settlers were
able for many years to conduct their own affairs without outside
A similar situation developed in the Massachusetts Bay
Company, which had been given the right to govern itself. Thus,
full authority rested in the hands of persons residing in the
colony. At first, the dozen or so original members of the
company who had come to America attempted to rule
autocratically. But the other colonists soon demanded a voice in
public affairs and indicated that refusal would lead to a mass
The company members yielded, and control of the government
passed to elected representatives. Subsequently, other New
England colonies – such as Connecticut and Rhode Island – also
succeeded in becoming self-governing simply by asserting that
they were beyond any governmental authority, and then setting up
their own political system modeled after that of the Pilgrims at
In only two cases was the self-government provision omitted.
These were New York, which was granted to Charles II's brother,
the Duke of York (later to become King James II), and Georgia,
which was granted to a group of "trustees." In both instances
the provisions for governance were short‑lived, for the
colonists demanded legislative representation so insistently
that the authorities soon yielded.
In the mid-17th century, the English were too distracted by
their Civil War (1642-1649) and Oliver Cromwell's Puritan
Commonwealth to pursue an effective colonial policy. After the
restoration of Charles II and the Stuart dynasty in 1660,
England had more opportunity to attend to colonial
administration. Even then, however, it was inefficient and
lacked a coherent plan. The colonies were left largely to
their own devices.
The remoteness afforded by a vast ocean also made control of
the colonies difficult. Added to this was the character of life
itself in early America. From countries limited in space
and dotted with populous towns, the settlers had come to a land
of seemingly unending reach. On such a continent, natural
conditions promoted a tough individualism, as people became used
to making their own decisions. Government penetrated the
backcountry only slowly, and conditions of anarchy often
prevailed on the frontier.
Yet the assumption of self-government in the colonies did not
go entirely unchallenged. In the 1670s, the Lords of Trade and
Plantations, a royal committee established to enforce the
mercantile system in the colonies, moved to annul the
Massachusetts Bay charter because the colony was resisting the
government's economic policy. James II in 1685 approved a
proposal to create a Dominion of New England and place colonies
south through New Jersey under its jurisdiction, thereby
tightening the Crown's control over the whole region. A royal
governor, Sir Edmund Andros, levied taxes by executive order,
implemented a number of other harsh measures, and jailed those
When news of the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689), which
deposed James II in England, reached Boston, the population
rebelled and imprisoned Andros. Under a new charter,
Massachusetts and Plymouth were united for the first time in
1691 as the royal colony of Massachusetts Bay. The other New
England colonies quickly reinstalled their previous governments.
The English Bill of Rights and the Toleration Act of 1689
affirmed freedom of worship for Christians in the colonies as
well as in England and enforced limits on the Crown. Equally
important, John Locke's Second Treatise on Government
(1690), the Glorious Revolution's major theoretical
justification, set forth a theory of government based not on
divine right but on contract. It contended that the
people, endowed with natural rights of life, liberty, and
property, had the right to rebel when governments violated their
By the early 18th century, almost all the colonies
had been brought under the direct jurisdiction of the British
Crown, but under the rules established by the Glorious
Revolution. Colonial governors sought to exercise powers
that the king had lost in England, but the colonial assemblies,
aware of events there, attempted to assert their "rights" and
"liberties." Their leverage rested on two significant
powers similar to those held by the English Parliament: the
right to vote on taxes and expenditures, and the right to
initiate legislation rather than merely react to proposals of
The legislatures used these rights to check the power of
royal governors and to pass other measures to expand their power
and influence. The recurring clashes between governor and
assembly made colonial politics tumultuous and worked
increasingly to awaken the colonists to the divergence between
American and English interests. In many cases, the royal
authorities did not understand the importance of what the
colonial assemblies were doing and simply neglected them.
Nonetheless, the precedents and principles established in the
conflicts between assemblies and governors eventually became
part of the unwritten "constitution" of the colonies. In
this way, the colonial legislatures asserted the right of
Directions: Read the text above, then answer the questions below.
1. What was a striking feature in the early phases of colonial development?
2. Because the king transferred his sovereignty over North America to others, early English colonists in North America were able to rule themselves under a democratic system of government.
3. England’s exclusive rule over the North American colonies withered away over time.
4. The charter of English political and civil liberties granted by King John in 1215 is known as the _____.
a. Bill of Rights
b. common law
c. habeas corpus
d. Magna Carta
5. Pilgrim settlers in the Plymouth Colony adopted what legal document?
a. Bill of Rights
b. Emancipation Proclamation
c. Mayflower Compact
d. Plymouth Pact
6. What colony was granted to the Duke of York (later James II)?
7. Which of the following did not distract the English from ruling the American colonies?
a. English Civil War
b. Irish Potato Famine
c. Puritan Commonwealth
9. Why did the Lords of Trade and Plantations move to annul the Massachusetts Bay charter?
10. What two colonies were united as Massachusetts Bay in 1691?
11. What served as the Glorious Revolution’s major theoretical justification?
12. What two significant powers were leveraged by colonial assemblies?
13. Describe how and why colonial legislatures asserted the right of self-government.
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Text courtesy of the U.S. State Department, Bureau of International Information Programs, 2005
Answer Key: 1. The lack of controlling influence by the English government; 2. B - False; 3. A - True; 4. D - Magna Carta; 5. C - Mayflower Compact; 6. New York; 7. B - Irish Potato Famine; 8. B - distinctiveness; 9. Because the colony was resisting the government's economic policy; 10. Plymouth and Massachusetts; 11. John Locke's Second Treatise on Government (1690); 12. The right to vote on taxes and expenditures, and the right to initiate legislation rather than merely react to proposals of the governor; 13. Answers will vary.