colonial experience

Colonial government in America

The organization and structure of British 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 frames.


There were originally 3 forms taken by ventures that created colonies. These are usually described as Proprietary colonies, Royal colonies, and Charter 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 Charter 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. Colonial charters were granted and revoked, and new land 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 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

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 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 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, 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 supreme 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: House of Delegates, House of Burgesses, or 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. Suffrage was restricted to 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. It's important to show respect for the legislaters.


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.

See also

Further reading

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