Colonial government

colonial government
The interior of the House of Burgesses, the Virginian colonial assembly

A critical issue underpinning the American Revolution was power. Who had the power to govern and pass laws affecting the British colonies in America. To understand this, one must understand the nature of colonial government and the relationship between Britain and her American colonies.

Contrasting views

According to the British perspective, all colonies were subject to laws and policies passed by the British parliament and their monarch, King George III. Colonies were considered politically subordinate to the king and parliament. They had no authority to reject or ignore British laws.

The American revolutionaries saw their relationship with Britain differently. The political evolution of the 13 colonies had fostered an independent spirit among colonial politicians, who had grown accustomed to making decisions themselves. Some even considered themselves entitled to local self-government.

Colonial assemblies, many Americans believed, should make laws pertaining to domestic matters, such as taxes and crime. London should pass and enforce laws pertaining to imperial matters, such as trade and defence.

The realities of colonialism

This independent mindset was a product of the realities of colonialism, particularly vast distances between Britain and America. London was simply too far away to closely manage colonial affairs. A message, an order or a law took between two weeks and three months to cross the Atlantic – and some ships did not arrive at all.

This necessitated some form of colonial government. Nominally, this responsibility was given to a royal governor. The governor in each colony was appointed by and acted on behalf of the Crown.

The governor was certainly the most powerful figure in the colony but a good deal of his power was theoretical rather than actual. The governor’s salaries and expenses were raised by the colonial assembly – and these assemblies were not averse to withholding payments to force the governor’s compliance.

Over time, the authority of royal governors diminished and the colonial assemblies – groups of colonists elected by a limited franchise, such as the Virginia House of Burgesses – assumed a good deal of power. The men who sat in these assemblies came to think themselves the government. They believed that legislative power over the colony lay in their hands while the British parliament dealt with British domestic matters and the business of empire.

Imperial distractions

In addition, British rulers had spent much of the 1600s and 1700s in competition with their rival empire: France. Four times this rivalry had broken out into open warfare, which naturally drew attention away from colonial management and onto military and naval matters.

Not that it mattered. The American colonies had, by and large, come to be a self-managing entity, capable of providing resources and enriching the empire without much involvement or intervention.

The British parliament was happy not to intervene while the colonies remained productive and economically viable, so they embraced a policy of non-interference, of letting the Americans be. This approach was later termed ‘salutary neglect’ because it benefited both sides.

American attitudes

The consequence of this ‘salutary neglect’ was that the American colonists grew convinced, rightly or not, that they enjoyed a considerable degree of political autonomy.

Settlers arriving in America had always been an independent-minded and self-sufficient lot – crossing the Atlantic to make your home was an intrepid feat in the 1700s.

Even the first settlers had brought notions of political independence and self-government. In 1619, the settlers in Jamestown (Virginia) formed their own political assembly. A year later, the Mayflower Pilgrims of Plymouth (Massachusetts) drafted a compact (promise) to form a “civil body politic” for the government of their affairs.

After more than a century of salutary neglect and virtual self-government, notions of political autonomy had hardened. Americans were content to live under the umbrella of the British empire, and proud to call the British king their king – but they also cherished the right to govern themselves.

A historian’s view:
“Governors who challenged the assembly too strongly or too often usually found a sudden, unaccountable budget crisis delaying … their allowances, while those that bent to assembly wishes could expect bonuses in the form of cash or grants of land… While the governors learned that their great powers were not so great after all, the assemblies in every colony were making an opposite discovery: they could broaden their powers far beyond the king’s intent. They fought for and won more freedom from the governor’s supervision and influence, gaining the right to elect their own speaker of the assembly, make their own procedural rules, settle contested elections…”
Carol Berkin

Citation information
Title: “Colonial government”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: January 3, 2015
Date accessed: March 17, 2023
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