Self-Government in the Colonies

The Habit of Self-Government

In a self-governing colony such as Plymouth, elected rulers make most decisions without referring to the imperial power that nominally controls the colony.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the political structure of the Plymouth Colony

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In a self-governing colony such as Plymouth, the executive is not under the control of the imperial government.
  • Early colonists in Plymouth colony thought they should be able to govern themselves because of the geographic separation from England.
  • The Mayflower Compact of Plymouth Colony was based on a majoritarian model and the settlers’ allegiance to the king; it was a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the compact’s rules for the sake of survival.
  • The idea of self-government was encouraged by the Glorious Revolution and 1689 Bill of Rights, which established that the British Parliament —and not the king—had the ultimate authority in government.
  • In the 1730s, however, Parliament began to pass laws regulating their colonies in the Americas through restrictions on trade. As interference increased, colonists felt more resentful about British control over the colonies.

Key Terms

  • Sugar Act: Also known as the American Revenue Act or the American Duties Act; a revenue-raising law passed by the Parliament of Great Britain on April 5, 1764.
  • oligarchy: A form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people, who might be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, or corporate, religious, or military control.

Self-Government in the Colonies

A self-governing colony is a colony in which elected rulers are able to make most decisions without referring to the imperial power (such as England), with nominal control of the colony. Colonies have sometimes been referred to as self-governing in situations where the executive has not been under the control of the imperial government; the term self-governing can refer to the direct rule of a Crown Colony by an executive governor elected under a limited franchise. This type of government was seen in Plymouth Colony between 1630 and 1684.

Plymouth and the Mayflower Compact

The Mayflower Compact was the first governing document of Plymouth Colony. It was written by separatists, or Puritans who were fleeing religious persecution by King James of England. They traveled aboard the Mayflower in 1620 along with adventurers, tradesmen, and servants. The Mayflower was originally bound for the Colony of Virginia, financed by the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. Storms forced them to land at the hook of Cape Cod, however, in what is now Massachusetts. This inspired the passengers to proclaim, since the settlement would not be made in the Virginia territory as agreed, that they would use their own liberty and that no one had power to command them.

The painting depicts passengers of the Mayflower signing the "Mayflower Compact."

The Mayflower Compact, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris: In 1620, the Mayflower Compact became the first governing document of Plymouth Colony.

Many of the colonists chose to establish a government. The Mayflower Compact was based simultaneously on a majoritarian model (even though the signers were not in the majority) and the settlers’ allegiance to the king. It was in essence, a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the compact’s rules and regulations for the sake of survival. Thus, the colonists sincerely believed that they had the right to govern themselves, being separated from Britain by an ocean and having founded an entirely new society. In Plymouth’s form of self-government, the colony was led by a governor and local legislature elected by a local oligarchy; the governor was appointed by the colonial power rather than the English Crown.

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Copy of the text of the Mayflower Compact created by William Bradford ca. 1645: The Mayflower Compact was signed on November 11, 1620, by 41 passengers while the Mayflower was anchored at the tip of Cape Cod.

Self-Government Through the 17th and 18th Centuries

The idea of self-government was encouraged by the Glorious Revolution and the 1689 Bill of Rights which established that the British Parliament—and not the king—had the ultimate authority in government. In the 1730s, the Parliament began to pass laws regulating their colonies in the Americas. The Sugar Act established a tax of six pence per gallon of sugar or molasses imported into the colonies, and by 1750, the Parliament had begun to ban, restrict, or tax several more products. This provoked much anger among the colonists, despite the fact that their tax burdens were quite low when compared to most subjects of European monarchies of the same period. Slowly, as interference from the Crown increased, the colonists felt more and more resentful about British control over the colonies.

Governors and Assemblies

Colonial governors were appointed by the Crown, while assemblies were elected by local colonists.

Learning Objectives

Describe the relationship between colonial governors and assemblies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Governors were officials who were appointed by the British monarch or cabinet to oversee the colonies and be the heads of the colonial administration.
  • The governor had the power of absolute veto and could prorogue (i.e., delay) and dissolve the assembly.
  • Colonial assemblies were made up of representatives elected by the freeholders and planters (landowners) of the province; they were also called the House of Delegates, House of Burgesses, or Assembly of Freemen.
  • The assembly’s role was to make all local laws and ordinances, ensuring they were not inconsistent with the laws of England. They also dealt with budget, taxes, and militia issues.
  • Conflicts over budgets and taxation contributed to tensions between assemblies and governors; this conflict would eventually lead to the American Revolution.

Key Terms

  • Government House: The name of many of the residences of governors-general, governors, and lieutenant-governors in the Commonwealth and the remaining colonies of the British Empire.
  • Privy Council: A body that advises the head of state of a nation, typically, but not always, in the context of a monarchic government.
  • Board of Trade: A committee of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, first established as a temporary committee of inquiry in the 17th century that evolved gradually into a government department with a diverse range of functions.

Colonial Governors

In the British Empire, a governor was originally an official appointed by the British monarch or cabinet to oversee one of the colonies and be the head of the colonial administration. The governor was invested with general executive powers and authorized to call a locally elected assembly. In addition to advising the governor, the governor’s council would sit as an upper house when the assembly was in session. The governor had the power of absolute veto and could prorogue (i.e., delay) and dissolve the assembly at any time. The governor lived in an official residence, known in most of the colonies simply as Government House.

A governor’s power could diminish as the colony gained more representative government. This representation could come in the form of an Executive Council to help with the colony’s administration or, in a further stage of self-government, Legislative Councils and Assemblies in which the governor often played a role. In some colonies, the colonial assembly shared power with a royally appointed governor. On a more local level, governmental power was vested in county courts, which were self-perpetuating—the incumbents filled any vacancies and there never were popular elections.

Colonial Assemblies

The colonial assemblies had a variety of titles, such as House of Delegates, House of Burgesses, or Assembly of Freemen. Assemblies were made up of representatives elected by the freeholders and planters (landowners) of the province. The assemblies usually met for a single, brief session, although the council or governor could and sometimes did call a special session.

The assembly’s role was to make all local laws and ordinances, ensuring they were not inconsistent with the laws of England. In practice, this was not always achieved, because many of the provincial assemblies sought to expand their powers and limit those of the governor and crown. Laws could be examined by the Board of Trade, which also held veto power over legislation. The Board of Trade (originally known as the Lords of Trade or Lords of Trade and Plantations) was a committee of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, first established as a temporary committee of inquiry in the 17th century that evolved gradually into a government department with a diverse range of functions. Taxes and government budgets also originated in the assembly, and the budget was connected with the raising and equipping of the militia.

The House of Burgesses was the first assembly of elected representatives of English colonists in North America. The House, which consisted of delegates elected by the colonists, was established by the Virginia Company, who created the body as part of an effort to encourage English craftsmen to settle in North America. The word burgess means an elected or appointed official of a municipality or the representative of a borough in the English House of Commons.

Tensions Between Governors and Assemblies

Conflicts over taxation and budgets contributed to the tensions between assemblies and governors that would eventually lead to the American Revolution. In 1769, the Virginia House of Burgesses asserted that only Virginia’s governor and legislature could tax its citizens. The members drafted a formal letter to the King, completing it just before the legislature was dissolved by Virginia’s royal governor.

As the Revolution drew near, colonial assemblies began forcibly ejecting their governors from office. Maryland was the only colony that did not forcibly eject its last proprietary governor from office, choosing instead a formal and largely courteous transfer of power. By 1775, the authority of its English governor, Sir Robert Eden, had been effectively usurped by the Annapolis Convention, and Eden was eventually asked by the Maryland Council of Safety to step down as governor. The Maryland Convention had been pressed by the Continental Congress (and the Virginians in particular) to arrest and detain Eden, but they demurred, preferring to avoid such an “extreme” measure. Eventually, the Maryland Convention formally asked the governor to leave, and Governor Eden finally departed Maryland for England on June 23, 1776.

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Maryland Governor’s Mansion: Government House is the official residence of the governor of Maryland and is located at State Circle in Annapolis, Maryland. It has been the home of the governor since 1870. It was designed by Baltimore architect R. Snowden Andrews (1830–1903). Jennings House was the residence of the governors of Maryland from 1777 until 1870.

New France and Louisiana

New France, colonized by France in the 16th century, included the colonies of Canada, Acadia, Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, and Louisiana.

Learning Objectives

Describe the early history of French colonies in North America

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • New France was the area colonized by France in North America during a period from 1534 until the cession of New France to Spain and Great Britain in 1763.
  • At its peak in 1712, the territory of New France extended from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.
  • During the 16th and early 17th centuries, New France’s economy was heavily centered on its Atlantic fisheries; in the later half of the 17th and 18th centuries, the economy focused on the fur trade.
  • French traders in America quickly realized the economic benefits of working with American Indians to exploit fur and timber exports.
  • With the Treaty of Paris in 1763 ending the French and Indian War, the territory of New France was ceded to Spain and Britain.

Key Terms

  • Treaty of Utrecht: A series of individual peace agreements signed by the actors in the War of the Spanish Succession in March and April of 1713.

Background

New France was the area colonized by France in North America during a period from 1534 until the cession of New France to Spain and Great Britain in 1763. At its peak in 1712, the territory of New France extended from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. The territory was then divided into five colonies, each with its own administration: Canada, Acadia, Hudson Bay, Newfoundland (Plaisance), and Louisiana.

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New France (orthographic projection)—Maximal expansion in 1712, before Treaty of Utrecht: This global map illustrates the geographic location of New France, which stretched from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier claimed the first province of New France. However, initial French attempts at settling the region met with failure. French fishing fleets, however, continued to sail to the Atlantic coast and into the St. Lawrence River. French merchants soon realized the St. Lawrence region was full of valuable fur-bearing animals, especially the beaver, which were becoming rare in Europe. Eventually, the French crown decided to colonize the territory to secure and expand its influence in America.

French Population in its Colonies

For the first few decades of the colony’s existence, the French population numbered only a few hundred, while the English colonies to the south were much more populous and wealthy. In 1627, France invested in New France, promising land parcels to hundreds of new settlers with the hope of turning the area into an important mercantile and farming colony. Samuel Champlain was named governor of New France. The colony forbade non-Roman Catholics from living there, and Protestants were required to renounce their faith to establish themselves in New France. Many therefore, chose instead to move to the English colonies.

The economic development of New France was marked by the emergence of successive economies based on staple commodities, each of which dictated the political and cultural settings of the time. During the 16th and early 17th centuries, New France’s economy was heavily centered on its Atlantic fisheries. This would change in the latter half of the 17th and 18th centuries as French settlement penetrated farther into the continental interior. Here, French economic interests would shift and concentrate on the development of the fur trade. Furs would soon become the staple goods that would strengthen and drive New France’s economy, in particular that of Montreal, for the next century.

Louisiana was an administrative district of New France and was under French control from 1682–1763 and 1800–1803. It originally covered an expansive territory that included most of the drainage basin of the Mississippi River and stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rocky Mountains.

New France and American Indians

Although the fur trade was lucrative, many French saw Canada as an inhospitable frozen wasteland, and by 1640, fewer than 400 settlers had made their home there. The sparse French presence meant that colonists depended on the local Algonquian people; without them, the French would have perished. French traders in America quickly realized the economic benefits of working with American Indians to exploit fur and timber exports. The French needed help to survive in the difficult climate of North America, and the Algonquian people were influential in showing them how to establish themselves in this New World. The Algonquian helped them to hunt for food and to use the furs from their prey to keep warm during the winter months. Later on, intermarriage allowed the French to deepen relations with indigenous nations and have access to their hunting and trapping grounds.

French fishermen, explorers, and fur traders made extensive contacts with the Algonquian. The Algonquian, in turn, tolerated the French because the colonists supplied them with firearms for their ongoing war with the Iroquois. Thus, the French found themselves escalating native wars and supporting the Algonquian against the Iroquois, who received weapons from their Dutch trading partners. These 17th-century conflicts centered on the lucrative trade in beaver pelts, earning them the name of the Beaver Wars. In these wars, fighting between rival American Indian peoples spread throughout the Great Lakes region.

Disintegration of New France

The Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713 between several European states including Spain, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Savoy, and the Dutch Republic to end the War of the Spanish Succession. The treaty resulted in the relinquishing of French claims to mainland Acadia, the Hudson Bay, and Newfoundland, and the establishment of the colony of Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) as the successor to Acadia.

France ceded the rest of New France, except the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, to Great Britain and Spain in the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which ended the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War). Britain received the lands east of the Mississippi River, including Canada, Acadia, and parts of Louisiana, while Spain received the territory to the west—the larger portion of Louisiana. Spain returned its portion of Louisiana to France in 1800 under the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso, but French leader Napoleon Bonaparte sold it to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, permanently ending French colonial efforts on the North American mainland.

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Map of British and Spanish territorial gains : This map illustrates the British and Spanish territorial gains following the Treaty of Paris that ended the French and Indian War. Also shown are boundary changes within the territory the British had acquired between 1763 and 1783.