British Government in the Colonial Era

Union Jack


To fully understand the relationship of colonial America with the British Empire, we should keep in mind first of all that the colonists did not question the idea of being part of the British Empire until shortly before the American Revolution began. For the first century and a half of colonial history, the majority of American colonists saw themselves as subjects of the Crown, with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that British citizenship entailed. They could not vote, of course, but voting rights in England were restricted. Nevertheless the British people had some influence over who was eleted to Parliament, while the American colonists had no representation in Parliament at all. Most members of Parliament, and the monarch and his or her advisors, believed that they had the right to govern the colonies as they saw fit, and it would have been imptactical to even consider colonial representation in the government.

Furthermore, the colonies prospered under the protection of the British Empire. The ocean highways of the world were dangerous places, where a colonial trading vessel could be set upon by pirates or by the warships or privateers of competing nations.  The fact that colonial ships flew the British flag meant that even in remote parts of the world, colonial merchants and traders could reasonably expect to find a British man of war over the horizon to protect them in time of trouble.  In addition, colonial ships carrying colonial goods were able to trade widely, and as long as colonial products were desired in the marketplace of the world, good profits were possible.

For most of the 17th-century as the colonies were young and developing, conflicts between colonial interests and those of the Empire were relatively insignificant.  But in the 18th century, things began to change. To start with, a series of dynastic wars was fought in Europe among the great powers: Spain, France, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Great Britain, and various lesser states who aligned themselves with one or the other of the major powers. Since a direct relationship was assumed between the possession of colonies and economic and therefore military power, these wars, though focused on the European continent, or often played out to some extent on colonial turf.  The American colonies thus found themselves dragged into conflicts primarily between Great Britain and France and Great Britain and Spain, even though those conflicts may not have had major significance for the colonists themselves. We will discuss those wars in the colonial wars section.

Another factor which entered into the growing divergence of interests between the colonists and the mother country was the fact of colonial prosperity.  As the colonists began to prosper, the spread of information through books, pamphlets newspapers and so on infused the Americans with a political sense of that to which they were entitled as British citizens.  The educated and well read among the colonists began to examine and question the various theories which guided the government of the British Empire.  They gradually became aware that in many ways they were being exploited, and that when their interests conflicted with those of the mother country, they were sold short.

Adding to the theoretical separation of interests was the simple fact of distance.  Even as the American colonies clung for the most part to the east coast of North America, they were becoming aware that a vast continent lay before them and that eventually, inevitably, the colonies would outgrow the mold into which they had been cast.  The separation of America from the British Empire, therefore, can be seen as virtually inevitable, and so the means by which that separation would take place would be determined by events that began after the middle of the 18th-century.  Just as Canada, Australia, and India eventually broke away from the Empire, it is a virtual certainty that America would have done the same.  Americans were different from their British cousins almost as soon as they arrived in the New World, and the hope that they might remain British forever was fragile.

The System of Colonial Government: Benign Neglect

At the top of the British system stood the monarchy. Although their specific authority was to some extent subject to negotiation, with the exception of the period known as the Interregnum, their right to rule was not questioned. True, James II was overthrown in the Glorious revolution of 1688, he was was immediately replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange.

Being separated from the mother country by thousands of miles of ocean during the age of sail, the North American colonists felt the hand of government very lightly. Virginia led the way in establishing a governance system that eventually applied to all the American colonies. The first Virginia assembly met in 1619, and it continued to function intermittently until Charles I formally granted the Virginia colony the right to have an assembly in 1639. In those early colonies where the struggle for survival was paramount, the details of governance were not a high priority. Over time, however, systems of government for the colonies developed more formal structures, though they varied significantly because there was no set procedure for managing colonies in the British government system.

The Colonial Governor.

At the head of each colony was a governor, either a proprietary governor or a crown governor appointed by the King or Queen. The proprietary colonies were established under charters from the Crown, and the companies appointed the governors. In the Crown colonies the governors were appointed by the King or Queen and were responsible to the monarch for governing the colonists. The governors who actually resided in the colonies, or their selected deputy or lieutenant governors, although responsible to the crown, were nevertheless dependent upon the goodwill of colonists for pay, support, friendship, and so on. Thus they often found themselves in a middle position where sensitivity to the needs of the colonists might clash with responsibility to the King.

Governors held power over various judicial officers, sheriffs, and other officials, all of whom were royal agents who tended to support the Crown. Although some governed well, the colonial governors were not a particularly impressive lot. Aristocrats with political ambitions competing for prestigious posts within the government would not have considered an appointment as a colonial governor to be a plum assignment. Furthermore, they were subject to the will of the Crown, but they had few resources with which to enforce the mandates they received. Resistance to Royal policies from the colonists, often expressed through their assemblies, could be difficult for governors to resolve.

Colonial Legislatures

Colonial assemblies were generally elected bodies, with members coming from the wealthy, landed classes. They often served for long periods. Because the colonial assemblies were quasi-democratic (in the colonies most white males who were free from indentures could vote), officials could not act without reference to public opinion. The assemblies held the purse strings of the government, however, and the governor could not rule without reference to their wishes.

The assemblies could pass laws which had to be signed by the governor and sent to the king for approval. The process could be time-consuming, as bills had to be sent to England, where they might languish for weeks before being reviewed. British monarchs overturned about five percent of colonial legislation—not much, but it was a constant irritant. Often vetoed laws would be immediately re-passed in slightly different form, and the whole process would begin again, and colonists soon learned to take advantage of loopholes in the system. As a result, the colonists got in the habit of doing things their own way—often as a result of royal neglect. Theoretically the legislatures did not have much power, as everything they did was subject to review by the crown, but they dominated nearly every colony. Although they were not “local parliaments,” the colonists began to see them as such. As the colonial era moved closer to the Revolution, tension between the colonies and Parliament tended to grow more rapidly.

The court system developed more slowly, and it was not really until the U.S. Supreme Court was created by the Constitution that the governmental triad of executive, legislative, and judicial branches moved toward the coequal powers that we now take for granted.

The Economic System. As we have noted elsewhere, the the economic fortunes of the colonies were heavily controlled by King and Parliament within the context of British Mercantilism. Mercantilism, which has been defined as a form of “state capitalism,” was meant to help the entire empire, and although the colonists sometimes felt themselves victims of mercantile practice, the intention of the mercantile laws, which took the form of various navigation acts, was to bolster British trade and therefore the British economy at the expense of other nations.  Governing the Empire according to mercantilist principles was supposed to lraise the level of British prosperity with the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats.

In reality, however, the interests and needs of British subjects located on English soil had the highest priority, so that when it was deemed practical, the interest of the colonies were subordinated to those of the mother country.  And although the colonists sometimes objected to various practices incorporated into the navigation acts that restricted colonial trade, they did not question the theory that the Empire had the right to be governed as its leaders saw fit. 

See Section on Mercantilism

The Colonial Governments. Government in the American colonies starting with the early days of settlement evolved slowly. In the first settlements such as Jamestown and Plymouth, the numbers of inhabitants were so small that no organized government was necessary. In those early colonial structures, government often took the form of a strong leader, a man like William Bradford, John Winthrop or John Smith, perhaps aided by a few trusted advisors. Naturally in the uncertain conditions in which they lived, an iron hand would not have been useful. Thus consent of the governed was implied, if not actually stated. The Mayflower Compact, however, an extraordinary document in that it laid out for the first time a governmental structure based on a written, signed document, was an exception. In general, however, governments took various shapes as the colony grew according to the origin of their legal status, which was based on the terms of their charter.

It is important to keep in mind, first, that each colony was a separate political entity whose relationship was with the Crown, either directly or through a chartered company created by the Crown. Nothing remotely resembling a general colonial government existed until shortly before the Revolutionary War. For most of the colonial era, relations between neighboring colonies lacked any formal structure, and although conflicts between colonies were rare, they did occur when encroachments of territory or religious differences arose. We should also keep in mind that most of the colonies began their existence under charters, and the governments of those colonies where the business of the companies formed to manage them. Although all charters were written in such a way as to require general conformance with English law, they varied in their structure.

wlliamsburgAs the colonies grew larger, more sophisticated forms of government became necessary. Those forms, however, varied from colony to colony and within each colony, as different towns and nascent cities began to grow and prosper. The general structure was that all colonies had a governor and some sort of legislative entity, whether appointed or elected. Governors generally had a council of advisors, sometimes members of the assembly. Those councils sometimes functioned as part of the legislature—a separate house. Court systems generally functioned around an appointed justice of the peace. Church bodies sometimes performed quasi-judicial functions. Although some colonial assemblies consisted of elected members, it would be wrong to think of them as democratic bodies. Those eligible to participate in elections were generally the elite of the colony, consisting at most of all white male property owners. Because property was so abundant in the colonies, however, it was relatively easy for individuals to become property owners; thus those eligible to participate in government might rise to as many as 80-90% of adult white males.

To the Left: Williamsburg Statehouse

All colonial governors were required to conform to the dictates of the Crown, either directly or through the managers of proprietary colonies. While their authority was strong, they could not possibly govern with an iron hand, for they depended upon their fellow colonists for support. They did not live in castles; their social needs and desires were met by their fellow colonists, not by a a “court.” They depended upon the assemblies to provide for their financial support. They had the power to veto all laws passed by the assemblies, but the assemblies and their constituents had obvious means of exerting pressure on the governor.

It is probably most important to note that the government of the colonies touched the people very lightly. If government in the different colonies varied, local government varied considerably more. Organized governmental structures were rare. Police forces were haphazard at best. Social institutions of the kind we take for granted today were all but nonexistent. In that regard, the churches in the colonies provided social support to the troubled and the needy. Because of the high demand for employment—almost a able bodied adult could find plenty of work to do—there was very little crime, especially property crime. Even the more prosperous colonists had little real property that could be converted into the equivalent of cash. In other words, there was not much to steal. Life in the colonies was also often quite harsh, meaning that cooperation and mutual assistance among the colonists was necessarily a common phenomenon.

As colonial life moved into the 1700s those fractured forms of government began to take a more modern shape. In the northern colonies, strongly influenced by the Puritan experience, local governments evolved relatively early. Even today in the northern states towns and villages have highly organized governments and operate as independent political entities. Much of that tradition in evolved from the idea of the New England town meeting, as reach settlement governed itself for all practical purposes.

In the South, however, under the Anglican structure, the colonies were organized into parishes modeled on the stricture of the church; those parishes often dictated the boundaries of counties. (Even today, in the state of Louisiana, for example, what are called counties elsewhere are still referred to as parishes.) Government in the Southern colonies, then, often took the form of a county government with very little governing authority situated in individual towns and villages.

The important point to remember in all this is that the colonists felt the hand of government very lightly. There were few taxes, few regular requirements of any kind imposed by governments, and except for matters such as gaining title to property or getting married, colonists made few demands on their governments and expected very little in the form of governance. When the British Parliament began to exert pressure on the colonies following the period of colonial wars, it rapidly bred resistance. Until that point the colonists could all but ignore Parliamentary authority. Once they began to feel its heavy hand, discontent grew rapidly.

Summary of Life in the Colonies 1607 - 1750

  • The seeds of the American Republic were planted early—the settlers brought some sense of independence with them.
  • Colonists got used to doing things their own way through their own assemblies; local control over taxes was always important.
  • Americans were probably the healthiest people in the world once acclimatized. Clean water, plentiful food and healthier conditions generally prevailed, though not equally everywhere.
  • By around 1750 American were probably the most literate people in the world, at least in New England. Newspapers proliferated.
  • Americans tended to be tough, self-reliant people, individualists. England's new attitude toward the colonies did not yet produce a sense of nationalism for the colonies; the colonists were rebellious by nature, but not yet ready to challenge British authority in the main—the American Revolution was still decades off, and Americans saw themselves as loyal subjects of the crown.
  • Settlers from non-English backgrounds generally did not object to English governance; at its worst, it wasusually better than what they were used to, and frequently much better.
  • By 1750 Great Britain had 31 colonies from North America to Asia governed by various sets of rules.  Even the various North American colonies had different charters.
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Updated December 19, 2016