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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Political Development in America
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The French and Indian War had other important results than that of removing the great rival to English power in America. In this it cleared the field for another and greater war yet to come, while it educated the colonists in the military art, and prepared them for the task of encountering the ablest soldiers of Europe in deadly conflict on their own soil. It served, also, as a school of training for many of the officers who were afterwards to grow prominent in the Revolutionary War, and in particular gave to George Washington his first lessons in that art in which he was soon to acquire a world-wide fame. Names crop up throughout the course of this conflict which we shall meet in marked prominence in the events next to be described,--names not only of soldiers, but also of statesmen, for it is a political as well as a military revolution with which we have to deal, and its grand results are due to the legislator quite as much as to the soldier. The military struggle, indeed, was preceded by a long and fierce political contest, of which it formed the inevitable conclusion. For this contest the people of America had been prepared, not by their years of war, but by their years of peace, for the whole political history of the American colonies is a history of instruction in the principles of democracy, and the republic of the United States was only in an immediate sense the work of the men of the Revolution, but in its fullest sense was the work of the colonists of America from their first entrance upon the trans-Atlantic shores. A consideration of the political struggle leading to the war of independence, therefore, properly requires a preceding review of the political history of the colonies from their first settlement, since only in this way can we comprehend the preparation of the whole people for the radical change of government they were so soon to undergo, and the strong spirit of democracy which stood behind the labors of congresses and conventions and gave the cue to the work which they were to perform. In default of finding any sufficiently brief statement of this political evolution in the works of historians, the editor offers the following outline sketch, as an essential preliminary to the chapter of American history which now demands our attention.]

The several British colonies of America were formed under a variety of differing conditions. The settlement of Virginia was the work of a company of London merchants, that of New England of a body of Puritan refugees from persecution. Most of the other colonies were formed through the efforts of proprietors, to whom the king had made large grants of territory. None of them were of royal or parliamentary establishment, the nearest to this being the colony of New York, which was appropriated from its Dutch founders by the king's brother,--soon to become king himself. The government of the mother-country, therefore, took no part in the original formation of the government of the colonies, except in the somewhat flexible requirements of the charters granted to the proprietors. Lord Baltimore was left at full liberty to establish a form of government for Maryland, William Penn for Pennsylvania, and the body of proprietors for the Carolinas, while the London Company of merchants largely used their own discretion in modelling that of Virginia. As for the government of Plymouth, it was formed without any restriction or suggestion from abroad, by a body of men who had crossed the ocean to enjoy religious liberty and who were prepared by their previous history for the duties of self-government. The Massachusetts colony was a chartered one, but from the first it took its government into its own hands, and began to exist under that same simple form of democracy which had been established by its Plymouth predecessor. In fact, a colony composed of equals, unprovided with a royal governor, and to a large extent unrestricted in its action, could scarcely assume any other than the one form of government, that of a democracy in which every man was a citizen and had a full voice in the management of affairs. There was only one restriction to this universal suffrage and self government,--that of religious orthodoxy. The colonists were Puritan sectaries, and were determined that their form of religion alone should prevail in the colony. Not only were those of heterodox views incapable of exercising full rights of citizenship, but they were soon driven from the community, as an element of discordance hostile to the well-being of this bigoted body politic. To the extent here indicated, therefore, democracy in America was first established in 1620, not in 1776. And it made considerable progress in New England and elsewhere ere it encountered any decided interference from the crown. The growth of this democratic spirit is of high interest, and is worthy of a much fuller consideration than we have space to devote to it.

The first government of New England was formed on board the Mayflower, before the landing of the Pilgrims. It was the democratic government of the Puritan church congregation transferred to the body politic, the Pilgrims choosing their governor as they chose their pastor, by the voice of the congregation. "For eighteen years all laws were enacted in a general assembly of all the colonists. The governor, chosen annually, was but president of a council, in which he had a double vote. It consisted first of one, then of five, and finally of seven members, called assistants." The colonists gradually assumed all the prerogatives of government, even the power of capital punishment. Yet so little were political honors desired that it became necessary to fine those who, being chosen, declined to act as governor or assistant.

The colony of Massachusetts Bay was organized under a charter granted by the king, but its primary management was of the same nature as that of Plymouth. In 1630 the charter and the government were transferred from England to Massachusetts, John Winthrop was chosen governor by the people, and the first General Court, or legislative assembly, was held at Boston on the 19th of October of that year. From that time until 1686 the people of New England governed themselves, under a system based on general election, all power being in the hands of the people, and the government essentially a republic. The only restriction to the right of franchise was the requirement that all citizens must be members of some church within the limits of the colony. In 1634 another important step of progress in self-government was made. Settlements were now dotted around the circumference of Massachusetts Bay, and it had become inconvenient for the citizens to exercise the duties of freemen in person. They therefore chose deputies to represent them, and the primitive form of democracy was changed to a representative one.

In the formation of the other New England colonies the same principle of government was adopted. The constitution of the Connecticut settlements, formed in 1639, paid no heed to the existence of a mother-country. The governor and legislature were to be chosen annually by the freemen, whose oath of allegiance was to the common-wealth, not to the English monarch, and the "general court" possessed the sole power of making and repealing laws. The royal charter granted by Charles II. in 1662 fully confirmed the constitution which the people had thus made for themselves. Rhode Island was chartered by the English Parliament in 1644, and formally organized its government in 1647, adopting a democracy similar to that of the other colonies, except that there was no religious restriction to the rights of citizenship, it being declared that "all men might walk as their consciences persuaded them, without molestation, every one in the name of his God." The colonies of Maine and New Hampshire became proprietary governments, under royal grants to Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Captain John Mason. But they quickly came under the influence of the Massachusetts colony, and in 1641 New Hampshire placed itself under the protection of Massachusetts and ignored the claims of the proprietors. Its adopted form of government differed from that of Massachusetts only in the fact that neither the freemen nor the deputies of the colony were required to be church members.

In 1643 a further step of progress in the evolution of a representative republic was made. As a measure of protection against the Indians and the other dangers which threatened them, the colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Haven, and Plymouth united themselves into a confederacy, under the title of The United Colonies of New England. Rhode Island was not admitted into this confederacy, because she would not consent to be incorporated with Plymouth. New Hampshire, as we have seen, formed then a portion of the Massachusetts colony. The governing body of the confederacy consisted of an annual Assembly, composed of two deputies from each colony, which dealt with all matters relating to the common interests, while the separate interests of each colony were managed by its local government, as before.

We perceive in the events above described a remarkable progress towards a federal republic, of the same type as that now existing in the United States of America, and constituting a noble school for the teaching of those principles of self-government which have become so deeply instilled into the minds of the American people. It may seem strange that England so quietly permitted this colonial republic to be formed. But the governing powers of England had work enough for themselves at home. Originally the colonies were too insignificant for their acts to call for much attention, and when the home government did show some disposition to interfere with them, the colonists, with much shrewdness and show of respect, yet with great tenacity, held on to the rights they had acquired, and baffled by a policy of delay and negation every effort to interfere with their privileges. Ere long the English royalists became engaged in a death-struggle with democracy at home, during which they had little leisure to attend to affairs abroad; and the subsequent overthrow of the government, and the establishment of a military democracy in England, were circumstances highly favorable to the growth of republicanism in America. During this period the self-governing principle made progress in all the colonies, though largely through the example and in fluence of New England.

The people knew thoroughly what they were about, in the formation of the New England system of government. The doctrine of rotation in office was early established, "lest there should be a governor for life." When it was proposed that the office should be a life one, the deputies immediately resolved that no magisterial office of any kind should be held for more than a year. In one case where a caucus of justices nominated certain persons for election, the people took good care to elect none of the persons so proposed. Another important democratic principle was early adopted, that of making provision for the pay of public officers annually, and avoiding the fixation of salaries. This system proved very useful subsequently, in the conflict with the representatives of royalty. Originally the councillors, with the governor, constituted the whole governing body. When representatives were first chosen they sat in the same room with the governor and council. In 1644 it was ordained that the two bodies should meet in separate chambers Thus was first constituted the American legislature of two houses, the councillors being annually chosen by the whole body of freemen, the representatives by the separate settlements. The local government of each township remained in its own hands, and the whole organization was a miniature predecessor of that now existing within the United States of America. It was distinctively democratic. The early prejudices in favor of rank and title quickly disappeared, perfect equality was aimed at, and even such titles as those of Esquire and Mr. were applied to but few persons, Goodman and Goodwife being the ordinary appellations. Aristocratic connections in time became a bar to public favor.

It was not until after the restoration of Charles II. to the throne of England that any disposition to interfere with the republican government that had quietly grown up in New England was manifested. The only restrictions which England had placed upon the freedom of these colonies were of a commercial character. These had been removed during the era of the Commonwealth, but were renewed after the Restoration. Only English vessels were permitted to trade with the colonies. All articles of American produce for which there was a demand in England were forbidden to be shipped to foreign markets. The colonies were even restricted from the privilege of free trade with one another; and finally they were forbidden to manufacture, for use at home or abroad, any article that would compete with English manufactures. These restrictions gave rise to much complaint on the part of the colonists, and were evaded at every opportunity. Other sources of difficulty arose from the severe treatment of Quakers and others by the New England churchmen. To settle all such complaints, royal commissioners were sent to Boston in 1664, empowered to act upon all causes of colonial disturbance.

The coming of these commissioners was not viewed with favor by the colonists. They were naturally alarmed at a measure which might result in a restriction of their liberties, and were disposed to oppose the king's agents at every step. The commissioners were resisted, secretly or openly, in all the colonies except Rhode Island, which alone received them with deference. Massachusetts boldly asserted her rights under the charter, and denied the authority of the commissioners, while professing the sincerest loyalty to the king. Eventually their mission proved a failure, the colonists in great part ignoring their measures. They were recalled, and the colonial governments went on as before. Many years passed away before any other active measure was taken by the king against the colonists. In 1677 Maine became part of the province of Massachusetts, through a decision against the claim of the proprietors. In 1680 New Hampshire was separated from Massachusetts, and was made a royal province,-- the first instance of this kind in New England. In 1681 new sources of trouble arose. The vigorous resistance which Massachusetts had long made to the restrictions imposed on the freedom of commerce culminated in the defeat of a custom-house officer who was sent over for the collection of dues. By a policy of passive resistance, delay, and obstruction, all his efforts were negatived, and he was finally obliged to return empty-handed to England.

The time had now arrived for the first open conflict between the throne and the colonies. The king had long entertained the project of taking the government of the colonies into his own hands, and seized this opportunity for effecting his purpose. English judges declared that Massachusetts had forfeited her charter, through disobedience to the laws of England. Before any further steps could be taken, the king died; but his successor, James II., proceeded vigorously to carry out his plans. In 1686 the charter government of Massachusetts was succeeded by a royal government, under Joseph Dudley, appointed by the king. In December of the same year Sir Edmund Andros arrived at Boston with a royal commission as governor of all the New England colonies. The acts of Andros we have already considered, in a former article, with his prompt expulsion from the country on the tidings of the revolution in England. The people at once renewed their former mode of government, with no immediate objection from the new monarch. Earnest efforts were made by Massachusetts to obtain a restoration of her charter, but without success, the king and his councillors secretly deeming this too liberal. In 1692 a new charter was granted, which vested the appointment of governor in the king. Beyond this there was little interference with colonial liberty, but the representatives of the people for many years kept up a violent controversy with the royal governors. The latter demanded a fixed and permanent salary. With this demand the Assembly refused to comply, claiming the right to vary the salary each year at their pleasure, and so manipulating this right that the amount of the governor's salary was made to depend upon the character of his administration. The people had learned their lesson well, and held firmly in hand this useful method of enforcing a government in accordance with their ideas of justice and utility. The controversy finally ended in a compromise, in which the claim of the Assembly was admitted, while it was agreed that a fixed sum should be voted annually.

We have given special attention to the political history of New England, from its great importance as the birthplace of American democracy. The other colonies, though founded on more aristocratic principles, were strongly affected by its example, and strove vigorously to gain similarly liberal institutions. The earliest of these, that of Virginia, was, by its first charter, under the supreme government of a council residing in England and appointed by the king, who likewise appointed a council of members of the colony, for its local administration. Thus all executive and legislative powers were directly controlled by the king, and no rights of self-government were granted the people. Virginia formed the only British colony in America of which the monarch thus retained the control. The colonial councils consisted of seven persons, who were to elect a president from their own number. John Smith was made president in 1608, the year after their arrival. In 1609 a new charter was given to the London Company, by which the English councillors were to have the privilege of filling vacancies by their own votes, and were empowered to appoint a governor for Virginia, whose powers were very despotic. The lives, liberty, and property of the colonists were placed almost at his sole disposal. The governor appointed, Lord Delaware, and his successor, Sir Thomas Dale, fortunately proved men of moderate and wise views. In 1612 still another charter was granted. This abolished the superior council, and transferred its powers to the company as a whole. But it failed to give any political rights to the colonists. Under the administration of George Yeardley, appointed governor in 1619, the first step towards popular rights was taken. Martial law, which had before prevailed, was abolished, and a colonial Assembly was convened, consisting of two burgesses or representatives from each of the eleven boroughs into which the colony was divided. But the measures passed by the Assembly were to be of no force until ratified by the company in England. In 1621 a written constitution was granted to the colony by the company, which ratified the arrangement made by Yeardley and added to it the highly-important provision that no orders of the company in England should have binding force upon the colony until ratified by the Assembly. Trial by jury was also established, and courts on the English model were organized. The privileges granted by this constitution were ever afterwards claimed as rights, and constituted a valuable preliminary towards complete civil liberty in Virginia. Soon afterwards the king, not relishing the freedom of debate manifested in the colonial Assembly, and the contests between the liberalists and the loyalists, with the growing prevalence of liberal sentiments, sought to overawe the Assemblies and thus control the elections of officers. As this proved inefficacious, a judicial decision against the corporation was obtained, and the company dissolved, the king taking direct control of the colony and erecting it into a royal government. Yet no effort was made to wrest from the colonists the right to a representative government, which the company had granted them. This privilege they ever afterwards retained, and the fact of its possession under royal auspices formed a valuable lesson for the future proprietaries, who could not hope to obtain colonists for their lands under a constitution more stringent that of Virginia, though they could not be expected to concede the full measure of freedom enjoyed in New England. The government was now administered by a governor and ten councillors, acting under the instructions of the king, but the colonial Assembly continued its annual sessions. In fact, Virginia, through its whole history, was the most loyal of the colonies. It was the one colony which had been settled largely by royalists and members of the Established Church, and the Virginians continued warmly loyal to the throne and the Church while Puritanism and republicanism were rapidly gaining the control in England. The intolerance in religious matters which New England displayed in favor of Puritanism was here manifested in favor of the Church of England, and the legislature ordered that no minister should preach except in conformity to the doctrines of that Church. After the formation of the Commonwealth in England the Virginian royalists recognized Charles II. as their sovereign, and it required the presence of a Parliamentary naval force in their harbors to bring them into a recognition of the Commonwealth. The news of the restoration of Charles II. was gladly received in the colony, and the friends of royalty quickly gained controlling power in the Assembly.

Yet the people soon had reason to regret the change of government. The policy of commercial restriction was made more stringent than ever, and Virginia suffered from it more severely than any of the other colonies. It was decided that all the export and import trade of the colonies should employ none but English vessels, and that tobacco, the principal product of Virginia, should be sent only to England. The trade between the colonies was likewise taxed for the benefit of England. Remonstrances against these oppressive laws proved of no avail, while discontent was also caused by large grants of Virginia territory to royal favorites. Meanwhile, the aristocratic party in the legislature had seriously abridged the liberties of the people. Religious intolerance increased, Quakers and Baptists were heavily fined, the taxes became oppressive, and the Assembly, instead of dissolving at the end of its term, continued in session, thus virtually abolishing the representative system of government. These were some of the evils which gave rise to the so-called "rebellion" of Nathaniel Bacon, and which caused so many of the planters to sustain him. His effort, however, proved of no efficacy in restoring the liberties of the people, and the oppressive system of government long continued.

Of the proprietary colonies of America the oldest was that of Maryland, which was founded under a grant of land made to Lord Baltimore in 1632. Its charter was of marked liberality, the emigrants having the right to worship God as they wished, while politically they were equals. The laws of the province were to be subject to the approbation of a majority of the freemen or their deputies. At first the members of the colony convened in General Assembly for legislative purposes, the first Assembly being held in 1635. But in 1639 a representative government was adopted, the people sending delegates to the Assembly. The governor of the province was appointed by the proprietor. In a preceding article we have considered the succession of political events in Maryland, and it will suffice to say here that, after a long subversion of the proprietary government, the Calverts again gained control, and that Maryland continued under their rule until the Revolution.

The Carolinas were granted to a body of eight proprietors in 1653, under a charter which gave the people religious freedom and a voice in legislation, but reserved nearly the whole power to the proprietary corporation. Somewhat later Locke's despotic scheme of government (explained in a preceding article) was adopted. Yet the effort to establish it proved abortive. The people saw the colonies to the north of them governing themselves, and refused to submit to a government in which they had no voice. They established a republican government of their own, elected delegates to a popular Assembly, drove out tyrannical governors and replaced them by men of their own choice, and in all displayed an aptness for and a tendency to self-government equal to those of any other of the colonies. For a short period the Church of England was made supreme in South Carolina by the proprietors, and all dissenters were excluded from the legislature. Complaint was made to the English Parliament, and soon after the disfranchising laws were repealed by the colonial Assembly; but the Church of England remained the established form of religion till the Revolution.

In New York, under the Dutch, the example of self-government displayed in New England caused much dissatisfaction with the arbitrary rule which prevailed, and gave rise to popular demands for greater privileges and a share in the government. The people were very ready, on the occasion of the English invasion, to submit to their new rulers, in the hope of gaining increased liberty. Yet they found themselves under as severe a despotism as before, and made the same protest that had been heard in the other colonies, that taxation without representation was unjust and oppressive. They obtained answer from their governor that the taxes should be made so heavy that they would have time to think of nothing else but how to pay them. This oppression continued till 1683, when, under the advice of William Penn, the Duke of York ordered the governor to call an Assembly of representatives. This Assembly passed an important "charter of liberties," which was approved by the governor. This charter placed the supreme legislative power in the governor, council, and people met in general assembly, gave to every freeman full right to vote for representatives, established trial by jury, required that no tax whatever should be assessed without the consent of the Assembly, and that no professing Christian should be questioned concerning his religion. The privileges here claimed were not fully conceded. Several of the governors proved oppressive and ruled the colony despotically. But the right of self-government, so far as it had been attained, was never again yielded. The dispute, of which we have previously spoken, in 1732, between the liberal and the aristocratic parties, which was decided in favor of the former, showed clearly the prevailing liberal sentiments of the people. The editor who had been thrown into prison for a libel against the government was acquitted, and Andrew Hamilton, one of his counsel, was highly applauded for his eloquent defence of the rights of mankind and of free speech by the press.

The charter granted by Charles II. to William Penn for the government of Pennsylvania was very liberal in its provisions, but not sufficiently so to meet the enlarged views of the proprietor, who at the outstart promised his colonists that they should be a free people and be governed by laws of their own making. In 1682 he published his "frame of government," which was to be submitted to the people of the province for approval. In 1683 this was amended, in the second Assembly of the province, and a charter of liberties granted which made Pennsylvania almost fully a representative democracy. The right of appointment of judicial and executive officers, which was reserved by the proprietors of the other colonies, was surrendered by William Penn to the people, and the government consisted of the proprietor and the Assembly, with no intermediate council, as in Maryland and elsewhere. Yet, liberal as this constitution was, the people soon demanded further concessions and privileges, and Penn, in his last visit to his province, granted a new charter, still more liberal, and conferring greater powers upon the people, who from this time forward possessed a very full measure of political liberty.

The brief review we have here given of the development of political institutions in the English colonies in America will serve to show that they had attained a fair measure of political liberty at the period which we have now reached (the close of the French and Indian War), and had little or no occasion for discontent concerning their governmental rights and privileges. Unlike the French and Spanish colonists, who had no experience of parliamentary government and readily submitted to the rule of despotic governors, the British colonists were thoroughly indoctrinated in legislative principles, and came from a country in which at the period of some of the emigrations the people were rising in defence of their natural rights, and at the period of others had subverted the monarchy and founded a democracy on its ruins. Very naturally, therefore, the American colonists insisted upon a considerable degree of self-government in their new home, and extended this civil liberty even beyond the measure of that of the English Commonwealth, taking advantage of the many opportunities afforded them by the dissensions existing in the mother-country. As a consequence of this persistent struggle for the privilege of self-government, New England became almost a full republic, Pennsylvania was little behind it in the legislative freedom of its people, and the other colonies gained the right of making their own laws, with more or less interference from the royal governors.

So far, therefore, as legislative power and religious freedom were concerned, the colonists had little to complain of, and had there been no deeper cause of discontent the American Revolution would never have taken place. And through this long experience of self-government by the people of the colonies was acquired an extended knowledge of the principles of government, and a vigorous democratic sentiment, which rendered the form of government adopted by independent America an inevitable necessity of the situation, while the political ability displayed by its founders was the resultant of a long experience in self-rule, and no original outburst of legislative genius, as is so generally supposed.

The causes of the discontent which we have now to consider were industrial and executive, not legislative, and consisted of those stringent commercial and manufacturing regulations, and the claim of the crown to unrestricted powers of taxation, which had for a long period been resisted by the colonies. In their earlier and weaker days these evils were of secondary importance, but with every step of growth in population, and of development of the resources of America, the right to trade with whom they pleased and to manufacture what they pleased became of greater importance to the colonists, until finally the restrictions in these respects grew insupportable. In regard to the question of taxation, the people of Massachusetts at an early date strongly disputed the right of taxation without representation. As time went on, this sentiment spread to the other colonies, and had become vigorously implanted in the minds of all Americans by the era immediately preceding the Revolution. That principle which had been long fought for and eventually gained in the home country, that the people, through their representatives, alone had the power to lay taxes, was naturally claimed in America as an essential requisite of a representative government; and it was mainly to the effort of the English authorities to deprive the colonists of this right that the American Revolution was due.

Charles Morris

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