New England colony: Formation of democracy



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 influence 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 councilors, 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 councilors 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.





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