Colonial government in the Thirteen Colonies
The structure of the English colonial governments in North America shared many attributes. While each of the Thirteen Colonies, destined to become the United States, had its own unique history and development, common features and patterns emerged in their governments.
Most of these features applied to most of those colonies.
Government in the colonies represented an extension of the English government. Courts enforced the common law of England. The Governor's Council or the Governor's Court was a body of senior advisers to the appointed royal Governor in each province.
The legislative body, which went by various names from colony to colony and through time, was elected by the enfranchised voters. By 1750, most free white men could vote. In colonial New England there were annual town meetings, where each colonist had a voice.
Diplomatic affairs were handled by London, as were some trade policies. The colonies generally handled domestic matters (and wars with the Native Americans), but England – and after 1707, Great Britain – handled foreign wars.
Governor's council members were appointed, and they served at the governor's pleasure, who in turn served at the monarch's pleasure. Often the councilors' terms of service lasted longer than the governor's. The usual first act of a new royal governor was to re-appoint or continue the council members in their offices.
When there was an absentee governor or an interval between governors, the council acted as the government.
Members of the council included ex-officio members, who served by virtue of their position. Others were appointed in order to have a representative cross-section of the diverse interests in the colony. Council members were theoretically subject to approval by the London government, either the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, or after 1768 the Secretary of State for the Colonies. In practice, the distance and delay in communications meant that a veto occurred only in rare cases.
As with the House of Lords, the council had to approve new laws, which usually originated in the legislature. The council was seen as serving continuously; whereas the elected lawmakers of the colony typically met just once a year, addressing at that time taxes, budgets, and other concerns. Like the assembly, most council positions were unpaid.
While lawyers were prominent throughout the Thirteen Colonies, merchants were important in the northern colonies and planters were more involved in the southern provinces. These were the groups from which the appointed councilors and elected delegates were chosen.
The assemblies had a variety of names, such as: House of Delegates, House of Burgesses, or Assembly of Freemen. They had several features in common. Members were elected annually, by the propertied citizens of the towns or counties. Usually they met for a single, short session; but the council or governor could call a special session. Suffrage was allotted only to free white men and, in the early days at least, limited to landowners. Land ownership was widespread, however, which meant that most white men were able to cast a vote.
Tax issues and budget decisions originated in the assembly. Part of the budget went toward the cost of raising and equipping the colonial militia. As the American Revolution drew near, this subject was a point of contention and conflict between the provincial assemblies and their respective governors.
The perennial struggles between the colonial governors and the assemblies are sometimes viewed, in retrospect, as signs of a rising democratic spirit. However, those assemblies generally represented the privileged classes, and they were protecting the colony against unreasonable executive encroachments.
Legally, the crown governor's authority was unassailable. In resisting that authority, assemblies resorted to arguments based upon natural rights and the common welfare, giving life to the notion that governments derived, or ought to derive, their authority from the consent of the governed.
- American Revolution
- Colonial history of the United States
- Executive Council of New Hampshire
- House of Burgesses
- Massachusetts Governor's Council
- Proprietary colony
- Proprietary Governor
- Proprietary House
- Andrews, Charles M. Colonial Self-Government, 1652-1689 (1904) full text online
- Andrews, Charles M. The Colonial Period of American History (4 vol. 1934-38), the standard overview to 1700
- Cooke, Jacob Ernest, ed. Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies (3 vol 1993), compares British, French, Spanish and Dutch colonies
- Dinkin, Robert J. Voting in Provincial America: A Study of Elections in the Thirteen Colonies, 1689-1776 (1977)
- Green, Fletcher Melvin (1930). Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860: A Study in the Evolution of Democracy. U. of North Carolina press. ISBN 9781584779285.
- Greene, Jack P. Negotiated Authorities: Essays in Colonial Political and Constitutional History (1994)
- Hawke, David F.; The Colonial Experience; 1966, ISBN 0-02-351830-8. textbook
- Nagl, Dominik. No Part of the Mother Country, but Distinct Dominions - Law, State Formation and Governance in England, Massachusetts und South Carolina, 1630-1769 (2013).
- Middleton, Richard, and Anne Lombard. Colonial America: A History to 1763 (4th ed. 2011) excerpt and text search
- Osgood, Herbert L. The American colonies in the seventeenth century, (3 vol 1904-07). vol 3 online
- Osgood, Herbert L. The American colonies in the eighteenth century (4 vol, 1924-25)
References and notes
- Women, children, slaves, and Indians did not vote.
- Cooke (1993) vol 1 part 4
- Fletcher Melvin Green (1930). Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860: A Study in the Evolution of Democracy. U. of North Carolina press. pp. 21–22. ISBN 9781584779285.