What Were Colonial Assemblies?

Colonial assemblies were the first official forms of popular representation founded in the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War. According to Northern State University, they provided the initial taste the colonies had for self-government and served as the forerunners for future representational bodies that emerged during and after the Revolution.

According to Northern State University, the colonial assembly was the lowest in a three-part structure of government. The first and highest level was the royal governor, followed by a Governor’s Council, an entity that advised the governor and helped in some administrative duties. The assemblies, on the other hand, were elected by the people and served as advocates for their interests before royal authorities. Assemblies sometimes had different names, depending on the colony. The Virginia assembly, for example, the oldest in British America, was named the House of Burgesses. Though the assemblies did not have extensive law-making powers, they eventually gained some tax-setting authority.

As tensions grew between the colonies and the Crown, assemblies became key sites of resistance and popular action. Members of these assemblies, appealing to long-held English constitutional tradition, felt themselves completely justified in representing themselves. As British policy grew sterner, particularly with regard to unapproved taxation, more colonists felt their basic constitutional rights had been violated, and that they were being treated like second-class citizens. According to the University of Groningen, this was due in part to the colonists self-perception as “inheritors of the traditions of the Englishman’s long struggle for political liberty.” According to Kennedy Hickman at About.com, it was ultimately the leaders of the colonial assemblies who formed the Committees of Correspondence, organizations which communicated grievances between colonies and which led to the formation of the Continental Congress, the entity which eventually declared independence from Great Britain.