Colonial American Government and Politics
During the last two decades of the sixteenth century, the English Crown granted various proprietors and chartered companies authority to establish colonies in America. These grants formed the basis for an extraordinary devolution of political authority from the English Crown to separate polities in the New World. In the following century, this process led to the creation on the North American continent of twelve colonies stretching from South Carolina north to New Hampshire. In 1713, the British wrested Nova Scotia from the French, and in the early 1730s a group of government-sponsored trustees established Georgia.
Except for New Hampshire and Nova Scotia, both of which were started under the direct supervision of the Crown, these colonies were private ventures little supervised by the English. The welter of institutions devised by their sponsors to govern the colonies varied enormously. By the late seventeenth century, however, most of their political systems were roughly similar. This development was largely the result of the gradual conversion, between 1624 and 1729, of the majority of the colonies into royal provinces, but it also occurred in the private colonies--the three proprietaries, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, and the two corporate colonies, Connecticut and Rhode Island. This pattern was clearly derived from English political institutions. The governorship, the colonial equivalent of the Crown, was filled by appointees, except in Connecticut and Rhode Island, where it was elective. As the chief representatives of Britain, governors were responsible for enforcing British trade laws and carrying out other directives. As viceroys of the Crown, they were invested with its vast prerogative powers, powers that in theory extended well beyond those exercised by the Crown itself in Britain following the restrictions imposed after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689.
As chief executives, governors were responsible for executing colonial laws, administering justice, and appointing most administrative and judicial officers. As commanders in chief, they were responsible for provincial defense and diplomatic relations with the Indians and the other colonies. As one of three branches of the legislature, they had veto power over all laws and took an active role in the legislative process. Finally, they held the exclusive power to grant lands from the enormous royal or proprietary domains.
The governor's advisory councils took on the functions performed in Britain by the Privy Council and the House of Lords. Like the former, they served as an advisory body whose approval was required for most executive actions, and in a few colonies they acted as a superior court. Like the latter, they constituted in every colony except Pennsylvania after 1701 an upper house of the legislature whose consent was necessary for the passage of laws. In three colonies these bodies were elected by the lower houses of the legislature. Elsewhere, they were composed of usually twelve royal or proprietary appointees.
The lower houses of the colonial assemblies were the equivalents of the British House of Commons. Composed of elected representatives from local constituencies, they were the primary instruments for the expression of political demands. Though limited in the royal colonies and Pennsylvania by the requirement that all statutes be sent to Britain for review, their lawmaking powers were as extensive in their spheres as was that of the Commons in Britain, and their consent was required for all taxes.
Variations among colonies were greatest at the level of local government. Everywhere, in the English fashion, justices of the peace operating through local courts had primary responsibility for the administration of justice. For handling other areas of local administration, three main systems emerged. From North Carolina north to New York and in Nova Scotia, the county was the central unit of local government and was administered by county courts composed of justices of the peace appointed by the governors. In South Carolina and Georgia, the parish was the main component and was overseen by parish officers, all of whom were appointed by governors. In the four New England colonies, the town was the primary local unit and was administered by selectmen and other officials elected (usually annually) by a town meeting.
Colonists expected remarkably little from government. Budgets and taxes were low; paid full-time officials few; civil, judicial, and police establishments small, part-time, and unprofessional; and military establishments temporary. Hence, politics provided little scope for the active involvement of citizens. Outside New England, where some town offices were elective as were some provincial offices in Connecticut and Rhode Island, only representatives to the lower houses were not appointed, and the franchise was limited to independent property-owning adult males. Because property was relatively easily available, however, a large majority (up to 80 to 90 percent) of free white males in most colonies could expect to acquire enough property to meet suffrage requirements.
For several generations in most colonies, politics was relatively primitive. Leadership and institutional structures were weak and undefined, levels of political expertise and socialization low, and political consciousness undeveloped. Under such conditions, public life was volatile, and would-be leaders jockeyed with one another for power, wealth, and prestige. In a few places for brief periods, this primitive politics of competition resulted in the triumph of restrictive oligarchies.
Beginning in the 1720s and 1730s, these primitive forms gave way to traditional modes more like those of Britain. The hallmarks of this new type of politics were the muting of fundamental issues that divided the body politic, the dominance of broad elites who were roughly representative of or sensitive to the needs and interests of all important segments of free society, and the reduction of political strife to relatively low levels. In the few colonies in which these conditions could not be sustained and levels of conflict remained high, notably New York and Rhode Island, a more modern type of polity began to emerge around 1750 with the development of semipermanent political parties.
However politics developed, public life everywhere after 1720 became more settled. Levels of political socialization and consciousness rose, and institutional and leadership structures became more sharply articulated. Civil disorder was rare and tended to be confined to particular situations: when a political system failed to perform its expected functions; political leaders did not act on issues deemed important by a significant section of the population; strong contending parties disagreed over some fundamental issue, such as land titles or currency; or the traditional rights and privileges of the community seemed threatened.
For the most part, however, the limited coercive powers of colonial polities, their small scale, their extreme susceptibility to constituent demands, a generally high degree of constituent trust in leaders, and a new level of civility in the public arena all helped to channel conflict into publicly acceptable forms. These factors promoted a conception of politics as an accommodative process in which the broad body of the people normally deferred to the leadership and decisions of an increasingly expert community of experienced elite politicians.
Bernard Bailyn, The Origins of American Politics (1968); Leonard W. Labaree, Royal Government in America (1930).
JACK P. GREENE
The Reader's Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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