The thirteen original colonies: Evolution of democracy



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 modeling 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 influence of New England.





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