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- Formation of the Union - 5/46 -

[Sidenote: Towns.]

From these different forms of familiar local government the colonists chose those best suited to their own conditions. New Englanders were settled in compact little communities; they liked to live near the church, and where they could unite for protection from enemies. They preferred the open parish assembly, to which they gave the name of "town meeting." Since some of the towns were organized before the colonial legislatures began to pass comprehensive laws, the towns continued, by permission of the colonial governments, to exercise extended powers. The proceedings of a Boston town meeting in 1731 are thus reported:--

"After Prayer by the Revt. mr. John Webb,

"Habijah Savage Esqr. was chose to be Moderator for this meeting

"Proposed to Consider About Reparing mr. Nathaniell Williams His Kitchen &c.--

"In Answer to the Earnest Desire of the Honourable House of Representatives--

"Voted an Entire Satisfaction in the Town in the late Conduct of their Representatives in Endeavoring to preserve their Valuable Priviledges, And Pray their further Endeavors therein--

"Voted. That the Afair of Repairing of the Wharff leading to the North Battrey, be left with the Selectmen to do therein as they Judge best--"

[Sidenote: Counties.]

The county was also organized in New England, but took on chiefly judicial and military functions, and speedily abandoned local administration. In the South the people settled in separate plantations, usually strung out along the rivers. Popular assemblies were inconvenient, and for local purposes the people adopted the English select vestry system in what they called parishes. The county government was emphasized, and they adopted the English system of justices of the peace, who were appointed by the governor and endowed with large powers of county legislation. Hence in the South the local government fell into the hands of the principal men of each parish without election, while in New England it was in the hands of the voters.

[Sidenote: Mixed System.]

In some of the middle colonies the towns and counties were both active and had a relation with each other which was the forerunner of the present system of local government in the Western States. In New York each town chose a member of the county board of supervisors; in Pennsylvania the county officers as well as the town officers became elective. Whatever the variations, the effect of local government throughout the colonies was the same. The people carried on or neglected their town and county business under a system defined by colonial laws; but no colonial officer was charged with the supervision of local affairs. In all the changes of a century and a half since 1750 these principles of decentralization have been maintained.


[Sidenote: General form.] [Sidenote: Suffrage.]

Earlier than local governments in their development, and always superior to them in powers, were the colonial governments. In 1750 there was a technical distinction between the charter governments of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, the proprietary governments of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, and the provincial governments of the eight other continental colonies. In the first group there were charters which were substantially written constitutions binding on both king and colonists, and unalterable except by mutual consent. In the second group some subject, acting under a royal charter, appointed the governors, granted the lands, and stood between the colonists and the Crown. In the third group, precedent and the governor's instructions were the only constitution. In essence, all the colonies of all three groups had the same form of government. In each there was an elective legislature; in each the suffrage was very limited; everywhere the ownership of land in freehold was a requisite, just as it was in England, for the county suffrage. In many cases there was an additional provision that the voter must have a specified large quantity of land or must pay specified taxes. In some colonies there was a religious requirement. The land qualification worked very differently from the same system in England. Any man of vigor and industry might acquire land; and thus, without altering the letter of the law to which they were accustomed, the colonial suffrage was practically enlarged, and the foundations of democracy were laid. Nevertheless, the number of voters at that time was not more than a fifth to an eighth as large in proportion to the population as at present. In Connecticut in 1775 among 200,000 people there were but 4,325 voters. In 1890, the fourth Connecticut district, having about the same population, cast a vote of 36,500.

[Sidenote: Legislature.]

The participation of the people in their own government was the more significant, because the colonies actually had what England only seemed to have,--three departments of government. The legislative branch was composed in almost all cases of two houses; the lower house was elective, and by its control over money bills it frequently forced the passage of measures unacceptable to the co-ordinate house. This latter, except in a few cases, was a small body appointed by the governor, and had the functions of the executive council as well as of an upper house. The governor was a third part of the legislature in so far as he chose to exercise his veto power. The only other limitation on the legislative power of the assemblies was the general proviso that no act "was to be contrary to the law of England, but agreeable thereto."

[Sidenote: Executive.]

The governor was the head of the executive department,--sometimes a native of the colony, as Hutchinson of Massachusetts, and Clinton of New York. But he was often sent from over seas, as Cornbury of New York, and Dunmore of Virginia. In Connecticut and Rhode Island the legislatures chose the governor; but they fell in with the prevailing practice by frequently re- electing men for a succession of years. The governor's chief power was that of appointment, although the assemblies strove to deprive him of it by electing treasurers and other executive officers. He had also the prestige of his little court, and was able to form at least a small party of adherents. As a representative of the home government he was the object of suspicion and defiance. As the receiver and dispenser of annoying fees, he was likely to be unpopular; and wherever it could do so, the assembly made him feel his dependence upon it for his salary.

[Sidenote: Judiciary.]

Colonial courts were nearly out of the reach of the assemblies, except that their salaries might be reduced or withheld. The judges were appointed by the governor, held during good behavior, and were reasonably independent both of royal interference and of popular clamor. The governor's council was commonly the highest court in the colony; hence the question of the constitutionality of an act was seldom raised: since the council could defeat the bill by voting against it, it was seldom necessary to quash it by judicial process. Legal fees were high, and the courts were the most unpopular part of the governments.


[Sidenote: English statutes.] [Sidenote: The Crown.] [Sidenote: Parliament.]

In Connecticut and Rhode Island, where the governor was not appointed by the Crown, the colonies closely approached the condition of republics; but even in these cases they acknowledged several powers in England to which they were all subject. First came English law. It was a generally accepted principle that all English statutes in effect at the time of the first colonization held good for the colonies so far as applicable; and the principles of the common law were everywhere accepted. Second came the Crown. When the colonies were founded, the feudal system was practically dead in England; but the conception that the Crown held the original title to all the lands was applied in the colonies, so that all titles went back to Indian or royal grants. Parliament made no protest when the king divided up and gave away the New World. Parliament acquiesced when by charter he created trading companies and bestowed upon them powers of government. Down to 1765 Parliament seldom legislated for individual colonies, and it was generally held that the colonies were not included in English statutes unless specially mentioned. The Crown created the colonies, gave them governors, permitted the local assemblies to grow up, and directed the course of the colonial executive by royal instructions.

[Sidenote: Means of control.]

The agent of the sovereign in these matters was from 1696 to 1760 the so- called Lords of the Board of Trade and Plantations. This commission, appointed by The Crown, corresponded with the governors, made recommendations, and examined colonial laws. Through them were exercised the two branches of English control. Governors were directed to carry out a specified policy or to veto specified classes of laws. If they were disobedient or weak, the law might still be voided by a royal rescript. The attorneys-general of the Crown were constantly called on to examine laws with a view to their veto, and their replies have been collected in Chalmers's "Opinions,"--a storehouse of material concerning the relations of the colonies with the home government. The process of disallowance was slow. Laws were therefore often passed in the colonies for successive brief periods, thus avoiding the effects of a veto; or "Resolves" were passed which had the force, though not the name, of statutes. In times of crisis the Crown showed energy in trying to draw out the military strength of the colonies; but if the assemblies hung back there was no means of forcing them to be active. During the Stuart period the troubles at home prevented strict attention to colonial matters. Under the Hanoverian kings the colonies were little disturbed by any active interference. In one respect only did the home government press hard upon the colonies. A succession of Navigation Acts, beginning about 1650, limited the English colonies to direct trade with the home country, in English or colonial vessels. Even between neighboring English colonies trade was hampered by restrictions or absolute prohibitions. Against the legal right of Parliament thus to control the trade of the colonies the Americans did not protest. Protest was unnecessary, since in 1750 the Acts were systematically disregarded: foreign vessels carried freights to and from American ports; American goods were shipped direct to foreign countries ( 23; Colonies, 44, 128).


[Sidenote: Social life.] [Sidenote: Intellectual life.]

Formation of the Union - 5/46

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