Colonial government in America

Colonial government in America

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The organization and structure of British colonial governments in America shared many attributes. While each of the Thirteen Colonies
Thirteen Colonies
The Thirteen Colonies were English and later British colonies established on the Atlantic coast of North America between 1607 and 1733. They declared their independence in the American Revolution and formed the United States of America...

 destined to become the United States had its own history and development, there emerged over time some common features and patterns to the structure andd organization of the governments of these provinces.
By the time of the American Revolution
American Revolution
The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which thirteen colonies in North America joined together to break free from the British Empire, combining to become the United States of America...

 in 1775, most of these features applied to most of the colonies.

The Legislature

Government and law in the colonies represented an extension of the English government. Courts enforced the common law
Common law
Common law is law developed by judges through decisions of courts and similar tribunals rather than through legislative statutes or executive branch action...

 of England. The Governor's Council or the Governor's Court were senior advisors to the governor. The General Assembly was elected by the enfranchised voters; by 1750, most free men could vote. In New England, the towns had annual town meetings where all free men had a voice. Diplomatic affairs were handled by London, as were some trading policies. The colonies handled their own affairs (and wars) with the Native Americans, but Britain handled foreign wars with France and Spain.

The Council

Governor council members were appointed, and served at the governor's pleasure. Usually, this meant that their terms lasted longer than the governors. The first act of most new governors was to re-appoint or continue the current council members in their offices. When there was an absentee governor, or in a period between governors, the council acted as a government.

Many members of the council were ex-officio member
Ex-officio member
An ex officio member is a member of a body who is part of it by virtue of holding another office. The term is Latin, meaning literally "from the office", and the sense intended is "by right of office"; its use dates back to the Roman Republic.A common misconception is that the participatory rights...

s who served by virtue of being named to another office. For example, the head of the militia, the chief justice, and the king's attorney would all be councilors. Others would be appointed by the governor to get an effective cross-section to represent various interests in the colony. Council members were theoretically subject to approval by the British government, either the Secretary of State for the Southern Department
Secretary of State for the Southern Department
The Secretary of State for the Southern Department was a position in the cabinet of the government of Kingdom of Great Britain up to 1782.Before 1782, the responsibilities of the two British Secretaries of State were divided not based on the principles of modern ministerial divisions, but...

, or after 1768 the Secretary of State for the Colonies
Secretary of State for the Colonies
The Secretary of State for the Colonies or Colonial Secretary was the British Cabinet minister in charge of managing the United Kingdom's various colonial dependencies....

. In practice, the distance and delay in communications meant that a veto over a member occurred only in rare cases.

The Council as a whole would sit as the supreme court for the colony. Like the British House of Lords
House of Lords
The House of Lords is the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Like the House of Commons, it meets in the Palace of Westminster....

, the council's approval was required for new laws, which usually originated in the Assembly. The council could be viewed as continuous, unlike the Assembly, which would typically meet for a new session each year to deal with taxes, budgets, and new requirements. Like the Assembly, most Council positions were unpaid, and members pursued a number of professions. While lawyers were prominent throughout the colonies, merchants were important in the northern colonies, while planters were more involved in the south.

The Assembly

The Assemblies had a variety of titles, such as: House of Delegates
House of Delegates
The House of Delegates is the name given to the lower house of the legislature in three U.S. states – Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.House of Delegates may also refer to:...

, House of Burgesses
House of Burgesses
The House of Burgesses was the first assembly of elected representatives of English colonists in North America. The House was established by the Virginia Company, who created the body as part of an effort to encourage English craftsmen to settle in North America...

, or Assembly of Freemen. They had several features in common. Members were elected by the propertied citizens of the towns or counties annually, which usually meant for a single, brief session, although the council or governor could and sometimes did call for a special session. Suffrage
Suffrage, political franchise, or simply the franchise, distinct from mere voting rights, is the civil right to vote gained through the democratic process...

 was restricted to free white men only, usually with property ownership restrictions. Since land ownership was widespread, most white men could vote.

Taxes and government budgets originated in the Assembly. The budget was also connected with the raising and equipping of the militia. As the American Revolution grew nearer, this contributed to the conflict between the assembly and the governor.


The perennial struggles between governors and their assemblies are sometimes taken as symptoms of a rising democratic spirit. However, these assemblies represented only the privileged classes, and were protecting the colony against executive encroachments. Legally a governor's authority was unassailable. In resisting that authority, assemblies resorted to justification by arguments from natural rights and general welfare, giving life to the notion that governments derived, or ought to derive, their authority from the consent of the governed
Consent of the governed
"Consent of the governed" is a phrase synonymous with a political theory wherein a government's legitimacy and moral right to use state power is only justified and legal when derived from the people or society over which that political power is exercised...


See also

  • American Revolution
    American Revolution
    The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which thirteen colonies in North America joined together to break free from the British Empire, combining to become the United States of America...

  • Colonial history of the United States
  • Proprietary colony
    Proprietary colony
    A proprietary colony was a colony in which one or more individuals, usually land owners, remaining subject to their parent state's sanctions, retained rights that are today regarded as the privilege of the state, and in all cases eventually became so....

  • Proprietary Governor
    Proprietary Governor
    Proprietary Governors were individuals authorized to govern proprietary colonies. Under the proprietary system, individuals or companies were granted commercial charters by the King of England to establish colonies. These proprietors then selected the governors and other officials in the colony....

  • Proprietary House
    Proprietary House
    Proprietary House in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, is the only Proprietary Governor's Mansion of the Original Thirteen Colonies still standing. Erected in 1762 in the Georgian style, it was occupied only temporarily by the royal governor, Benjamin Franklin's son William Franklin, before he was arrested...

  • Executive Council of New Hampshire
    Executive Council of New Hampshire
    The Executive Council of the State of New Hampshire is the executive body of the U.S. state of New Hampshire. The Executive Council advises the Governor on all matters and provides a check on the governor's power. New Hampshire is one of the few states that has an Executive Council, and is the...

  • Massachusetts Governor's Council
    Massachusetts Governor's Council
    The Massachusetts Governor's Council is a governmental body that provides advice and consent in certain matters such as judicial nominations, pardons, and commutations to the Governor of Massachusetts...

Further reading

  • Andrews, Charles M. Colonial Self-Government, 1652-1689 (1904) full text online
  • Andrews, Charles M. The Colonial Period of American History (4 vol. 1934-38), the standard overview to 1700
  • Cooke, Jacob Ernest, ed. Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies (3 vol 1993), compares British, French, Spanish and Dutch colonies
  • Dinkin, Robert J. Voting in Provincial America: A Study of Elections in the Thirteen Colonies, 1689-1776 (1977)
  • Hawke, David F.; The Colonial Experience; 1966, ISBN 0023518308. textbook
  • Osgood, Herbert L. The American colonies in the seventeenth century, (3 vol 1904-07). vol 1 online; vol 2 online; vol 3 online
  • Osgood, Herbert L. The American colonies in the eighteenth century (4 vol, 1924-25)