Government in colonial America

While the English-American colonists were treated by the mother country as minor children or as absolute subjects to be governed, without questionings, by her capricious will; and while every measure of the British ministry was calculated to trammel their advance toward local self-government, that lofty idea was working out in America the great problem of republicanism, whose demonstration by actual achievements the monarchs of Europe were dreading. It was an idea that had spontaneous birth in the minds of all the colonists when they first felt the stimulating air of the freedom of their forest homes; and it grew into a mighty force in the bosoms of individuals before any one dared to openly promulgate it. It was the early inspiration out of which grew the democracy that finally impelled the colonists to proclaim themselves independent and to establish a nation here.

The common danger caused a confederation of New England colonies in 1643, but the national idea was lacking, and it was short-lived. A half a century later, William Penn put forth a plan for a general union of all the colonies, for their mutual welfare, in which he proposed the appointment of persons in each colony, who should meet at specified times, in a general congress to mature plans for the common good, whose presiding officer should be a high commissioner appointed by the crown, and in time of war should command all of the colonial forces. Penn's plan was commended by many thoughtful persons, and it was likened to the Grecian Amphictyonic Council. After that, writers in England and the colonies publicly discussed the topic, not with any idea of the independence of the colonists as subjects of Great Britain, but with a feeling that a national union here would redound to the glory and happiness of Great Britain and her American citizens. When, early in the last century, public attention was called to the evident designs of the French to supplant the English in America, Daniel Coxe, who had been a prominent man in New Jersey, published a volume in London (1772), in which he proposed that all the British colonies here should be united by a national covenant, in a national government, over which a supreme viceroy or governor, appointed by the crown, should preside in some part of America, the governors of the several colonies to be subordinate to him; and also that there should be a general congress of deputies chosen by the several colonies to promote unity of action in times of danger. Men of all shades of political opinion made similar suggestions; and Dinwiddie, governor of Virginia, recommended, not only a union of the colonies for mutual defence, but a confederation of the Indians then friendly toward the English, with the tribes more in the interior and under the influence of the French.

Meanwhile there had been several congresses or conventions of leading men in the colonies, having for their object the union of the people of the several provinces for the public good, or to cultivate the friendship of the Indians. One of these was held at Albany in 1684, composed of the officers of the governments of Massachusetts, New York, Maryland and Virginia, and sachems of the Five Nations. In 1693, Governor Fletcher, of New York, in compliance with a letter of instructions from the king, called a congress of commissioners from New England and other colonies to consult about the quotas of men and money which the several provinces should raise for common defence against the French. The call was so feebly answered that nothing was done by the few present. This was followed the next year by a meeting of commissioners at Albany with sachems of the Iroquois Confederacy, the object being to prevent the Five Nations from making a peace with the French in Canada.

When it was resolved to invade Canada with a land and naval force, in 1711, a convention was held at New London, Connecticut, to consult upon the matter, at which the governors of several of the colonies appeared and agreed upon the quotas. The expedition that followed, under Colonel Nicholson on land and Sir Hovenden Walker on the water, proved disastrous, as we have seen. In 1722, a congress of colonial officials and Indian sachems was held at Albany for the promotion of a friendly feeling and the strengthening of the alliance them existing with the Iroquois Confederacy. And in 1744, a similar congress, for the same purpose, met at Lancaster, in Pennsylvania, whereat over two hundred and fifty representatives of the Six (late Five) Nations were in attendance.

The last of these colonial congresses, all exhibiting tendencies toward a national union, was held at Albany in the summer of 1748, soon after news had reached the colonies of a preliminary treaty of peace having been signed by the commissioners of England and France. The congress was called for a two-fold purpose. The antagonisms between the royal governors and the people were alarming to the crown officers in America, and the latter wished to secure a colonial revenue through British interference, and not be subjected, in the matter, to the will or caprice of colonial assemblies. Foremost among these crown officers who were willing to abridge the rights of the people, were Governor Clinton, of New York, and Governor Shirley, of Massachusetts. They had promoted the assembling of the congress with a hope that that body would favor their scheme, and they were both there with their political friends. Another purpose of the meeting was the strengthening of the bond of friendship between the Six Nations and their Indian neighbors on the west, and the English. A vast concourse of barbarians were there. The royal governors gained nothing for themselves; but a satisfactory arrangement was made with the Indians. They agreed that no Frenchman should abide within their borders; also, not to send any delegation to Canada, and to have their warriors ready for the service of the English whenever they should be called for.

A crisis in political affairs in the colonies was now at hand. The royal governors perceived that something must speedily be done to curb the democratic spirit of the people, or local self-government would supersede royal authority. It was necessary to convince parliament of this truth. Only through the Lords of Trade and Plantations could this be done. This was a Board or Committee appointed by the crown in 1696, to whom was entrusted a general oversight of the affairs of the American colonies. It was originally composed of seven members and a president. To them the royal governors were requested to give frequent and full information of the condition of their respective governments concerning political and commercial affairs, and particularly of the proceedings of the assemblies; also of the appropriations for the public service, and how they were expended. To this Board the royal agents in the colonies addressed their letters. "It was the lion's mouth," says Frothingham in his Rise of the Republic of the United States, "into which the accusations and complaints against the colonies were indiscriminately cast."

To arouse the Lords of Trade and Plantations to action, some overt act of disobedience on the part of the colonies must be obtained. The bluff Admiral Clinton, then governor of New York, was chosen to bring on the crisis, and that province was to be the theatre of the collision. The royal governors were to aid him by representations to the Board of the turbulence of the people and their disloyalty. Governor Shirley took occasion, when the people of Boston had liberated some of their citizens from the grasp of a British admiral who had impressed them into the naval service, to represent the act as a rebellious insurrection. "The chief cause of the mobbish turn of a town inhabited by twenty thousand inhabitants," he continued, "is its constitution, by which the management of it devolves on the populace, assembled in their town meetings." Rovalists in Pennsylvania wrote words of warning, saying that "the obstinate, wrong-headed Assembly of Quakers" in that colony, "pretended not to be accountable to his majesty or his government," and that "they may, in time, apply the public money to purposes injurious to the crown and the mother country." "Virginia," wrote its governor, "formerly an orderly province, has nothing more at heart than to lessen the influence of the crown." In a similar strain loyalists wrote from all the provinces; and the Earl of Halifax, a young man a little more than thirty years of age, who had been placed at the head of The Lords of Trade, was satisfied that royal authority in the colonies was in peril, and so informed the ministry. In a letter to Governor Glen, of South Carolina, he promised "a very serious consideration on the just prerogatives of the crown and those defects of the constitution which have spread them-selves over many of the plantations, and are destructive to all order and government."

Governor Clinton sought, and soon found an occasion for a quarrel with the New York Assembly. He demanded of that body an appropriation for the support of the government, for five years next ensuing, with a view of making himself, as governor, independent of the assembly. As he expected, they refused their compliance. Then he warned them of the danger of incurring the displeasure of parliament, and dissolved the assembly. He at once wrote letters to the Lords of Trade, complaining of the rebellious tendencies of a greater portion of the assembly, charging them with claiming "all the powers and privileges of parliament;" that they had "set up the people as the high court of American appeal;" that they had "virtually assumed all of the public money into their own hands, and issued it without warrant from the governor," and, also, had assumed the right to nominate all officers of government; to reward all services by granting the salaries annually, "not to the office, but by name to the person in the office," and that the "system if not speedily remedied, would effect the dependency of the colonies on the crown." He besought the king to "make a good example for all America, by regulating the government of New York." He declared that until that should be done he could not "meet the assembly without danger of exposing the king's authority," and himself, "to contempt."

After violent quarrels with all political factions in the province, Clinton abandoned the government in disgust, and returned home. He was succeeded by Sir Danvers Osborne, who came with instructions to demand from the assembly a permanent revenue to be disbursed solely by himself. His council assured him that the assembly would refuse compliance with the demand. Foreseeing much trouble ahead, he became despondent. This state of mind was aggravated by grief because of the recent death of his wife, and he hanged himself with his pocket-handkerchief to the garden fence at his lodgings in New York.

The attitude of the New York Assembly was applauded by the leaders of popular opinion in the other colonies; and had measures for the maintenance of the royal prerogative and the supreme authority of parliament which Halifax proposed been pressed with vigor much longer, the revolution which broke out about twenty years later would doubtless have occurred then. But more urgent considerations occupied the attention of the British government and the American colonies at that time. Ever since the English captured Louisburg, in 1745, and D'Anville experienced his naval disasters, the French had put forth the most vigorous efforts for the extension and strengthening of their dominion in America. They were resolved on a persistent strife for power; and their aggressive movements about the year 1753, aroused the British government and the American colonial assemblies and people to the necessity of employing equally vigorous measures for opposing their common enemy. Then the colonists united among them-selves and with the Home Government in defence of British dominion in America. Then began the conflict known in America as the French and Indian War, and in Europe as the Seven Years War.

Return to Our Country, Vol. I