Colonial government in America

From Academic Kids

The organization and structure of Colonial governments in America shared many attributes. While each of the 13 colonies destined to become the United States has its own history and development, there emerged over time some common features and patterns to the structure and organization of the governments of these provinces. By the time of the American Revolution, many of these features applied to most of the colonies, and this article reviews those features as they appeared in the 1764 to 1775 time frame.



There were originally three forms taken by ventures that created colonies. These are usually described as Proprietary colonies, Royal colonies, and Corporate colonies. The Proprietary Colonies were created when large grants of land and authority were made to one or a small group of men, known as the proprietors. The Royal Colonies were created by a grant of authority under the kings patent to a group. The Corporate Colonies were creatures of both Parliament and the king, and their authority came through a charter.

The actual form of these governments could and did change. Charters were granted and revoked, and new patents were issued as various colonial schemes gained favor. By the time of the revolution, only Connecticut and Rhode Island maintained a unique status as chartered corporate colonies. The others had very similar governments based on the royal model, although terminology and usage varied.

The Governor

The role of the Governor and the use of the office evolved throughout the colonial period, just as the form of the government had. In the earliest days, the governor was the leader of the colonizing expedition. Then there was a period where an absentee governor became normal. The position was almost a sinecure, viewed as a source of revenue. But towards the end of the colonial era, governors tended to be resident civil servants, and their relation to the colony became more standard.

Standard does not mean that it was simple. A new governor would arrive and present his Commission to the leaders of the Colony, usually the Council. This commission or appointment came from the British minister who was the Secretary of State responsible for the Colonies. Early in this time that was the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, but after 1768 this was the Secretary of State for the Colonies.

But, the governor served several masters. Any instructions contained in his commission were public, and were usually reviewed with colonial leaders. However, the Board of Trade could and did issue additional instructions to the governor. So could the military or the navy. These were considered private, and weren't usually shared. This was somewhat duplicitous, since the President of the Board of Trade and the Secretary of State were frequently the same man. While the actions of the governor weren't constrained by the colonial legislature, it also exerted considerable influence since they appropriated money to pay the governor and his staff. The Massachusetts Government Act in 1774 changed this situation, and it became one of the immediate causes of the American Revolution.

The powers of the Governor were broad and sweeping. No action of the legislature became law without his approval. He appointed judges at all levels, commanded the militia, and could order the legislature disbanded. He had some direct authority and could order actions by British Naval or regular army forces in his colony.

The Legislature

Government and law in the colonies represented an extension of the English government. They were very much based on common law, and the view that governance was an administrative and judicial system. The American variation of this system, at the colony or state level generally used two bodies that involved citizens. The first of these combined judicial, administrative, and legislative functions. It was called the Governor's Council or the Governor's Court. The second of these was the General Assembly, and represented the people of the towns and counties of the state. Of course, these dealt only with local issues. Major trade, military, and monetary policy came from the British Parliament, as did some elements of criminal law.

The Council

The Governor's 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 between governors the council acted as a government. The head of government was either the President of the Council or a named Lieutenant Governor.

Many members of the council were ex-officio members who served by virtue of being named to another office. For example, the head of the militia, the chef 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, or after 1768 the Secretary of State for the Colonies. 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 superior court for the colony. Like the British House of Lords, 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 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 Assembly had a variety of titles such as: the House of Delegates, the Burgesses, or the Assembly of Freemen. They had several features in common. Members were elected by the 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. Citizens (or voters) were much more restricted than in modern government. This meant free white men only, usually with property ownership restrictions, and sometimes church membership requirements.

Traditionally 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. Governors would sometimes prorogue, or dismiss an assembly.

Further reading

  • Hawke, David F.; The Colonial Experience; 1966, Bobbs-Merrill Company, ISBN 0023518308.

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