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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard
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«·The Colonial Press · Chapter III·»

The Evolution in Political Institutions

Two very distinct lines of development appeared in colonial politics. The one, exalting royal rights and aristocratic privileges, was the drift toward provincial government through royal officers appointed in England. The other, leading toward democracy and self-government, was the growth in the power of the popular legislative assembly. Each movement gave impetus to the other, with increasing force during the passing years, until at last the final collision between the two ideals of government came in the war of independence.

The Royal Provinces.—Of the thirteen English colonies eight were royal provinces in 1776, with governors appointed by the king. Virginia passed under the direct rule of the crown in 1624, when the charter of the London Company was annulled. The Massachusetts Bay corporation lost its charter in 1684, and the new instrument granted seven years later stripped the colonists of the right to choose their chief executive. In the early decades of the eighteenth century both the Carolinas were given the provincial instead of the proprietary form. New Hampshire, severed from Massachusetts in 1679, and Georgia, surrendered by the trustees in 1752, went into the hands of the crown. New York, transferred to the Duke of York on its capture from the Dutch in 1664, became a province when he took the title of James II in 1685. New Jersey, after remaining for nearly forty years under proprietors, was brought directly under the king in 1702. Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, although they retained their proprietary character until the Revolution, were in some respects like the royal colonies, for their governors were as independent of popular choice as were the appointees of King George. Only two colonies, Rhode Island and Connecticut, retained full self-government on the eve of the Revolution. They alone had governors and legislatures entirely of their own choosing.

The chief officer of the royal province was the governor, who enjoyed high and important powers which he naturally sought to augment at every turn. He enforced the laws and, usually with the consent of a council, appointed the civil and military officers. He granted pardons and reprieves; he was head of the highest court; he was commander-in-chief of the militia; he levied troops for defense and enforced martial law in time of invasion, war, and rebellion. In all the provinces, except Massachusetts, he named the councilors who composed the upper house of the legislature and was likely to choose those who favored his claims. He summoned, adjourned, and dissolved the popular assembly, or the lower house; he laid before it the projects of law desired by the crown; and he vetoed measures which he thought objectionable. Here were in America all the elements of royal prerogative against which Hampden had protested and Cromwell had battled in England.

The Royal Governor's Palace at New Berne
The Royal Governor’s Palace at New Berne

The colonial governors were generally surrounded by a body of office-seekers and hunters for land grants. Some of them were noblemen of broken estates who had come to America to improve their fortunes. The pretensions of this circle grated on colonial nerves, and privileges granted to them, often at the expense of colonists, did much to deepen popular antipathy to the British government. Favors extended to adherents of the Established Church displeased Dissenters. The reappearance of this formidable union of church and state, from which they had fled, stirred anew the ancient wrath against that combination.

The Colonial Assembly.—Coincident with the drift toward administration through royal governors was the second and opposite tendency, namely, a steady growth in the practice of self-government. The voters of England had long been accustomed to share in taxation and law-making through representatives in Parliament, and the idea was early introduced in America. Virginia was only twelve years old (1619) when its first representative assembly appeared. As the towns of Massachusetts multiplied and it became impossible for all the members of the corporation to meet at one place, the representative idea was adopted, in 1633. The river towns of Connecticut formed a representative system under their “Fundamental Orders” of 1639, and the entire colony was given a royal charter in 1662. Generosity, as well as practical considerations, induced such proprietors as Lord Baltimore and William Penn to invite their colonists to share in the government as soon as any considerable settlements were made. Thus by one process or another every one of the colonies secured a popular assembly.

It is true that in the provision for popular elections, the suffrage was finally restricted to property owners or taxpayers, with a leaning toward the freehold qualification. In Virginia, the rural voter had to be a freeholder owning at least fifty acres of land, if there was no house on it, or twenty-five acres with a house twenty-five feet square. In Massachusetts, the voter for member of the assembly under the charter of 1691 had to be a freeholder of an estate worth forty shillings a year at least or of other property to the value of forty pounds sterling. In Pennsylvania, the suffrage was granted to freeholders owning fifty acres or more of land well seated, twelve acres cleared, and to other persons worth at least fifty pounds in lawful money.

Restrictions like these undoubtedly excluded from the suffrage a very considerable number of men, particularly the mechanics and artisans of the towns, who were by no means content with their position. Nevertheless, it was relatively easy for any man to acquire a small freehold, so cheap and abundant was land; and in fact a large proportion of the colonists were land owners. Thus the assemblies, in spite of the limited suffrage, acquired a democratic tone.

The popular character of the assemblies increased as they became engaged in battles with the royal and proprietary governors. When called upon by the executive to make provision for the support of the administration, the legislature took advantage of the opportunity to make terms in the interest of the taxpayers. It made annual, not permanent, grants of money to pay official salaries and then insisted upon electing a treasurer to dole it out. Thus the colonists learned some of the mysteries of public finance, as well as the management of rapacious officials. The legislature also used its power over money grants to force the governor to sign bills which he would otherwise have vetoed.

Contests between Legislatures and Governors.—As may be imagined, many and bitter were the contests between the royal and proprietary governors and the colonial assemblies. Franklin relates an amusing story of how the Pennsylvania assembly held in one hand a bill for the executive to sign and, in the other hand, the money to pay his salary. Then, with sly humor, Franklin adds: “Do not, my courteous reader, take pet at our proprietary constitution for these our bargain and sale proceedings in legislation. It is a happy country where justice and what was your own before can be had for ready money. It is another addition to the value of money and of course another spur to industry. Every land is not so blessed.”

It must not be thought, however, that every governor got off as easily as Franklin’s tale implies. On the contrary, the legislatures, like Cæsar, fed upon meat that made them great and steadily encroached upon executive prerogatives as they tried out and found their strength. If we may believe contemporary laments, the power of the crown in America was diminishing when it was struck down altogether. In New York, the friends of the governor complained in 1747 that “the inhabitants of plantations are generally educated in republican principles; upon republican principles all is conducted. Little more than a shadow of royal authority remains in the Northern colonies.” “Here,” echoed the governor of South Carolina, the following year, “levelling principles prevail; the frame of the civil government is unhinged; a governor, if he would be idolized, must betray his trust; the people have got their whole administration in their hands; the election of the members of the assembly is by ballot; not civil posts only, but all ecclesiastical preferments, are in the disposal or election of the people.”

Though baffled by the “levelling principles” of the colonial assemblies, the governors did not give up the case as hopeless. Instead they evolved a system of policy and action which they thought could bring the obstinate provincials to terms. That system, traceable in their letters to the government in London, consisted of three parts: (1) the royal officers in the colonies were to be made independent of the legislatures by taxes imposed by acts of Parliament; (2) a British standing army was to be maintained in America; (3) the remaining colonial charters were to be revoked and government by direct royal authority was to be enlarged.

Such a system seemed plausible enough to King George III and to many ministers of the crown in London. With governors, courts, and an army independent of the colonists, they imagined it would be easy to carry out both royal orders and acts of Parliament. This reasoning seemed both practical and logical. Nor was it founded on theory, for it came fresh from the governors themselves. It was wanting in one respect only. It failed to take account of the fact that the American people were growing strong in the practice of self-government and could dispense with the tutelage of the British ministry, no matter how excellent it might be or how benevolent its intentions.


A.M. Earle, Home Life in Colonial Days.

A.L. Cross, The Anglican Episcopate and the American Colonies (Harvard Studies).

E.G. Dexter, History of Education in the United States.

C.A. Duniway, Freedom of the Press in Massachusetts.

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography.

E.B. Greene, The Provincial Governor (Harvard Studies).

A.E. McKinley, The Suffrage Franchise in the Thirteen English Colonies (Pennsylvania University Studies).

M.C. Tyler, History of American Literature during the Colonial Times (2 vols.).


1. Why is leisure necessary for the production of art and literature? How may leisure be secured?

2. Explain the position of the church in colonial life.

3. Contrast the political rôles of Puritanism and the Established Church.

4. How did diversity of opinion work for toleration?

5. Show the connection between religion and learning in colonial times.

6. Why is a “free press” such an important thing to American democracy?

7. Relate some of the troubles of early American publishers.

8. Give the undemocratic features of provincial government.

9. How did the colonial assemblies help to create an independent American spirit, in spite of a restricted suffrage?

10. Explain the nature of the contests between the governors and the legislatures.

Research Topics

Religious and Intellectual Life.—Lodge, Short History of the English Colonies: (1) in New England, pp. 418-438, 465-475; (2) in Virginia, pp. 54-61, 87-89; (3) in Pennsylvania, pp. 232-237, 253-257; (4) in New York, pp. 316-321. Interesting source materials in Hart, American History Told by Contemporaries, Vol. II, pp. 255-275, 276-290.

The Government of a Royal Province, Virginia.—Lodge, pp. 43-50. Special Reference: E.B. Greene, The Provincial Governor (Harvard Studies).

The Government of a Proprietary Colony, Pennsylvania.—Lodge, pp. 230-232.

Government in New England.—Lodge, pp. 412-417.

The Colonial Press.—Special Reference: G.H. Payne, History of Journalism in the United States (1920).

Colonial Life in General.—John Fiske, Old Virginia and Her Neighbors, Vol. II, pp. 174-269; Elson, History of the United States, pp. 197-210.

Colonial Government in General.—Elson, pp. 210-216.

«·The Colonial Press · Chapter III·»