Political Culture in the Colonies


During the founding of the colonies, North American politics tended to move further away from the British model. Indeed, many of the early colonies were conscious attempts to move away from the British political system. The eighteenth century, however, witnessed a different movement, as American political culture tended to replicate Britain’s. There was one significant difference, however, which was the high rate of political participation in most North American colonies. The assemblies in each colony were elected, and the franchise was fairly high among white males.
The most striking characteristic of American political culture was the competition between the governor (appointed in most colonies by the king of England) and the assembly (which was popularly elected in each colony). Indeed, this competition was the pronounced political struggle in early America, as the governor attempted to implement the policies and practices of the empire, policies that often were opposed to the desires and needs of the residents of the colonies. The other characteristic feature of North American politics was the emphasis on “opposition” political ideology, the attempt on the part of political minorities to battle the governor or majority faction in the assembly. Indeed, this emphasis on opposition ideology was even greater in the colonies than in Britain, because of the larger proportion of voters in the colonies as well as because of the divergent interests of the empire and its colonies.

1 Day: 9/26

  • Examine the causes and course of the Glorious Revolution.
  • Trace the rise of political parties in England.
  • Discuss the evolution of the English concept of constitutional government during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
  • Discuss the foundations of colonial political structures and ideology, including what colonists meant by a political balance of power and how it matched the reality of Whig ideology and local political arrangements.
  • Compare the power of the colonial governors with that of the colonial assemblies.
  • Discuss factors contributing to the development of democracy in the colonies

Essential Questions:
  • What were the differences between Whigs and Tories in seventeenth-century England? What contributions did each faction make to the creation of British political culture?
  • On what common principles did English political culture begin to converge in both the mother country and the colonies after the Glorious Revolution?
  • How did the Glorious Revolution in England destroy absolutism and guarantee representative government in British North America?
  • What was the structure of colonial government? How did it operate? Why did Englishmen and colonial citizens view the role of assemblies differently?
  • What were the major similarities and differences between the government of the mother country and that of the colonies?


Pre-Reading: England’s Glorious Revolution

Why did the English king and parliament quarrel in the 1640s? What were the most important issues behind the war between them, and who bears more responsibility for it? What was the Glorious Revolution, and why did it take place? What role did religion play in seventeenth-century English politics?

Background: The Glorious Revolution
  • England’s Glorious Revolution was complex. It involved a struggle for power between a Catholic king and Protestant Parliament, a fight over religious and civil liberties, differences between emerging political parties, and a foreign invasion.
  • The Glorious Revolution (1688–1689) grew out of the Protestant Parliament’s mounting fear that King James II of England was certain to raise his son and future king of England as a Catholic. James had proclaimed toleration for Protestants and Catholics and began naming Catholics to high office.
  • During the drawn out debate over excluding James, members of Parliament divided into political parties, Tories and Whigs. These were not highly organized parties designed to campaign for the election of political candidates. (Highly organized modern political parties were first created in the United States in the early 1800s.)
    • Whig" and "Tory" are political party labels that have been in use in England since around 1681--and their specific meaning has varied somewhat with changing historical circumstances.
    • As political labels, the terms derive from the factional conflict of the Exclusion Crisis (1679-81), Whigs being supporters of Exclusion (of the Catholic James, Duke of York, brother of the king and next in line for the English throne) and Tories being their Royalist opponents. By extension, then, the Whigs were seen as asserting the primacy of Parliament over the monarch, while the Tories were seen as asserting the inverse.
    Nevertheless, in the late 1600s, the Whigs and Tories were the first parties to rally around sets of principles in a lawmaking body. Their basic principles were:
  • Whigs
    • The monarch shares power with Parliament. Both are answerable to the people and bound by the law.
    • The hereditary succession may be overridden by the common good.
    • The Church of England retains too many Catholic practices and should be further reformed. Toleration for Protestant Dissenters, but not for Catholics, should be permitted.
  • Tories
    • The monarch is the supreme power, answerable only to God, and must not be resisted. But the monarch is also bound by the law.
    • The monarchy is based on hereditary succession.
    • The Church of England is the established state church. No religious toleration for Catholics or Protestant Dissenters should be permitted.
  • Both Whigs and Tories joined together to remove the king, but not by the violent means by which his father (Charles I) had been removed.
  • These leaders invited William of Orange, husband of James’s Protestant daughter, Mary, to be the new leader of England.William landed in England in late 1688 and, within a few weeks, gained the support of the English army.
  • James fled to France, where he received the protection of the monarch there.
  • Parliament declared that James had abdicated the throne and named William and Mary in his place. In addition, it passed a Toleration Act that gave Protestants the right to worship publicly. Also, it passed a Bill of Rights that guaranteed Protestant succession to the throne.

Video : (4 Mins, 30 Sec)

Discussion: Why was the Glorious Revolution glorious? What is the importance of the Bill of Rights, 1689 in regard to the development of parliamentary government in Britain and to the development of the United States' system of government.

Lecture: The Glorious Revolution in America:

  • When Charles II died, his brother James II reasserted control over the colonies, establishing the oppressive Dominion of New England (all of present-day New England, New York, and New Jersey).
  • Resentment of James’s autocratic rule and fears of a Catholic succession led to revolution in England as James was deposed in 1688 in favor of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange.
  • The bloodless rebellion was dubbed the “Glorious Revolution” bestowed a Bill of Rights, respect for civil liberties, an increased role for Parliament, and a restricted monarchy upon the people of England and her colonies.
  • In the colonies, the overthrow also set off a series of rebellions against James’s appointed officials, the revocation of the Dominion of New England, and the restoration of traditional self-government. Ex. Locally, the Revolution of 1688 helped propel the citizens of Massachusetts to overthrow Governor Andros. Still, Massachusetts, Maryland, and New York remained as Royal Colonies.
  • The Glorious Revolution had long-term effects on America:
  • It showed the Americans that the ruler, if corrupt, can be overthrown. It set a precedent for the colonies when they separated from the King's rule.
  • The philosophy that emerged from the event, elucidated in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, became a cornerstone of American political thinking.
  • John Locke's Second Treatise on Government (1690) set forth a theory of government based not on divine right but on contract, and contended that the people, endowed with natural rights of life, liberty and property, had the right to rebel when governments violated these natural rights.
  • The revolution (and Locke’s explanation and justification of it) undermined claims for authoritarian government and argued essentially that men (and women) had the inherent right to participate in their own governance.
  • According to Locke, people had certain rights—to life, liberty, and property—and the government was responsible for protecting those rights for all citizens.
  • Locke’s thinking was invoked by Jefferson and the other founding fathers as justification for revolution and also as a basis for our Bill of Rights.
  • The Glorious Revolution had other positive effects on the colonies. The Bill of Rights and Toleration Act of 1689 affirmed freedom of worship for Christians and enforced limits on the Crown.
  • Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, England tightened her imperial administration, providing a more coherent management and a corps of colonial bureaucrats.

Lecture: The English concept of constitutional government:

  • The Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 ended a period of upheaval and instability in English politics.
  • The absolutist dreams of the Stuart kings were replaced by a “mixed and balanced” constitutional process where Parliament, the monarchy, and the nobility each retained and exercised influence and power. Ministers were public officials whose actions were subject to examination and whose positions were based upon support from below and above.
  • The government that emerged under the constitutional limitations was actually more centralized and powerful than the pre-Revolutionary system.
  • Englishmen celebrated their creation of a monarchial structure in which republican liberties were protected and corrupt aristocratic self-interest was contained.
  • In theory, each segment of the government acted in the best interest of the public.
  • The political debates of the period centered on establishing the extent to which power would be controlled within the system.
  • The dangers of corruption inherent in the appointment and taxing powers of the crown caused concern.
  • “Court” advocates encouraged greater consolidation of England’s war-making capacity through military expansion, revenue enhancement, and patronage.
  • “Country” advocates, on the other hand, favored frequent elections and dual office holding and opposed standing armies and financial innovations.
  • Both the Whig and Tory parties contained court and country factions.
  • The disputes between these groups eventually spread to the colonies in North America where the northern colonies embraced the court position and the southern colonies admired the country position.
  • By the 1720s, nearly every colony had an appointed governor, a council, and an assembly elected by the settlers. The assembly was seen as embodying a colony’s democratic elements.
  • Over the years, legislatures sat longer and passed more laws, and assemblymen usually took the initiative in drafting major bills.
  • Northern colonies, with their more diverse economic groups and ethnic interests, were more likely to give rise to political factions.
  • “Court Constitutions” were characteristic of the northern colonies where powerful councils closely advised imperial governors.
  • Most southern colonies practiced the politics of harmony. The southern colonies had “Country Constitutions;” that emphasized the importance of restricting corruption and central power.

Oral Reading: Inherited Ideas

“Were it not for government, the world would soon run into all manner of disorders and confusions,” wrote a Massachusetts clergyman early in the eighteenth century. “Men’s lives and estates and liberties would soon be prey to the covetous and the cruel,” and every man would be “as a wolf” to his neighbors. Few colonists or Europeans would have disagreed. Government existed to protect life, liberty, and property. How should political power be divided—in England, between the English government and the American colonies, and within each colony? Colonists naturally drew heavily on inherited political ideas and institutions—almost entirely English ones, for it was English charters that sanctioned settlement, English governors who ruled, and English common law that governed the courts. But meeting unexpected circumstances in a new environment, colonists modified familiar political forms.

Key Idea: The English tradition of ordered, limited, and representative government served as the basis of colonial governments

Oral Reading: Structuring Colonial Governments:

All societies consider it essential to determine the final source of political authority. In England, the notion of the God-given, supreme monarchical authority was crumbling even before the planting of the colonies. In its place arose the belief that stable government depended on blending and balancing the three pure forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Unalloyed, each would degenerate into oppression. Monarchy, the rule of one, would become despotism. Aristocracy, the rule of the few, would turn into corrupt oligarchy. Democracy, the rule of the many, would descend into anarchy or mob rule. Most colonists believed that the Revolution of 1688 in England had vindicated and strengthened a carefully balanced political system.
In the colonies, political balance was achieved somewhat differently. The governor, as the king’s agent (or, in proprietary colonies, the agent of the proprietor to whom the king delegated authority), represented monarchy. Bicameral legislatures arose in most of the colonies in the seventeenth century, and in most provinces they had upper houses of wealthy men appointed by the governor; as a pale equivalent of Britain’s House of Lords, it formed a nascent aristocracy. The assembly, elected by white male freeholders, replicated the House of Commons and was the democratic element. Every statute required the governor’s assent (except in Rhode Island and Connecticut), and all colonial laws required final approval from the king’s privy council. This royal check operated imperfectly, however. A law took months to reach England and months more before word came of its final approval or rejection. In the meantime, the law took force in the colony. Behind the formal structure of politics stood rules governing who could participate as voters and officeholders. In England, land ownership conferred political rights (women and non-Christians were uniformly excluded). Only men with property producing an annual rental income of 40 shillings or more could vote or hold office. The colonists closely followed this principle, except in Massachusetts, where until 1691 Church membership was the basic requirement. As in England, the poor and propertyless were excluded, for they lacked the “stake in society” that supposedly produced responsible voters. In England the 40-shilling freehold requirement kept the electorate small, but in the colonies, where land was cheap, it conferred the vote on 50 to 75 percent of free adult males. However, as the proportion of landless colonists increased in the eighteenth century, the franchise contracted. Though voting rights were broadly based, most men assumed that the wealthy and socially prominent should hold the main political positions. Balancing this elitism, however, was the notion that the entire electorate should periodically judge the performance of those entrusted with political power and reject those who were found wanting. Following the precedent of England’s Glorious Revolution, in British America the people were assumed to have the right to badger their leaders, to protest openly, and, in extreme cases of abuse of power, assume control and put things right. Crowd action, frequently effective, gradually achieved a kind of legitimacy.

Oral Reading: The Growing Power of the Assemblies

For most of the seventeenth century, royal and proprietary governors had exercised greater power in relation to the elected legislatures than did England’s king in relation to Parliament. Governors could dissolve the lower houses and delay their sitting, control the election of their speakers, and in most colonies initiate legislation with their appointed councils. They had authority to appoint and dismiss judges at all levels of the judiciary and to create chancery courts, which sat without juries. Governors also controlled the expenditure of public monies and had authority to grant land to individuals and groups, which they sometimes used to confer vast estates on their favorites. They lacked, however, the extensive patronage power that enabled ministers of government in England to manipulate elections and buy off opponents. Since the seventeenth century, Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York had been royal colonies, with crown-appointed governors. In the eighteenth century, royal government came to New Jersey (1702), South Carolina (1719), and North Carolina (1729), replacing proprietary regimes. Many royal governors were competent military officers or bureaucrats, but some were corrupt recipients of patronage posts. Some never even came over, preferring to pocket the salary and pay part of it to another man who went to serve as lieutenant governor. One committed suicide a week after arriving. Most, however, were merely mediocre. Eighteenth-century legislatures challenged the swollen powers of the colonial governors. Bit by bit, they won new rights: to initiate legislation, to elect their own speakers, to settle contested elections, to discipline members, and to nominate provincial treasurers who disbursed public funds. Most important, they won the “power of the purse”—the authority to initiate money bills, specifying how much money should be raised by taxes and how it should
be spent. Thus, the elected assemblies gradually transformed themselves into governing bodies reflecting the interests of the electorate. Governors complained bitterly about the “levelling spirit” and “mutinous and disorderly behavior” of the assemblies, but they could not stop their rise.

Oral Reading: Local Politics

Binding elected officeholders to their constituents became an important feature of the colonial political system. In England, the House of Commons claimed to represent the entire nation rather than narrow local interests, yet was filled with representatives from “rotten boroughs” (ancient places left virtually uninhabited by population shifts) and with men whose vote was controlled by the government because they had accepted offices, contracts, or gifts. American assemblies, by contrast, contained mostly representatives sent by voters who instructed them on particular issues and held them accountable. Royal governors and colonial grandees who sat as councilors often deplored this localist, popular orientation. Sniffed one aristocratic New Yorker, the assemblies
were crowded with “plain, illiterate husbandmen [small farmers], whose views seldom extended farther than the regulation of highways, the destruction of wolves, wildcats, and foxes, and the advancement of the other little interests of the particular counties which they were chosen to represent.” In actuality, most lower-house members were merchants, lawyers, and substantial planters and farmers, who by the mid-eighteenth century constituted the political elite in most colonies. They took pride in upholding their constituents’ interests, for they saw themselves as bulwarks against oppression and arbitrary rule, which history taught them were most frequently imposed by monarchs and their appointed agents. Local government was usually more important to the colonists than provincial government. In the North, local political authority generally rested in the towns (which included surrounding rural areas). The New England town meeting decided a wide range of matters, arguing until it could express itself as a single unit. “By general agreement” and “by the free and united consent of the whole” were phrases denoting a collective assent rather than a democratic competition among differing interests and points of view. In the South, the county was the primary unit of government, and by the mid-eighteenth century, a landed squirearchy of third- and fourth-generation families had achieved political dominance. They ruled the county courts and the legislature, and substantial farmers served in minor offices such as road surveyor and deputy sheriff. At court sessions, usually four times a year, deeds were read aloud and then recorded, juries impaneled and justice dispensed, elections held, licenses issued, and proclamations read aloud. On election days, gentlemen treated their neighbors (on whom they depended for votes) to “bumbo,” “kill devil,” and other alcoholic treats.

Oral Reading: The Spread of Whig Ideology

Whether in local or provincial affairs, a political ideology called Whig, or “republican,” had spread widely by the mid-eighteenth century. (Whigs- An English political party that demanded a constitutional (rather than an absolutist) monarchy. The English Whigs rose to power following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and governed Britain until the eve of the American Revolution)
This body of thought, inherited from England, rested on the belief that concentrated power was historically the enemy of liberty and that too much power lodged in any person or group usually produced corruption and tyranny. The best defenses against concentrated power were balanced government, elected legislatures adept at checking executive authority, prohibition of standing armies (almost always controlled by tyrannical monarchs to oppress the people), and vigilance by the people in watching their leaders for telltale signs of corruption. Much of this Whig ideology reached the people through some 23 newspapers circulating in the colonies by 1763. Many papers reprinted pieces from English Whig writers railing against corruption and creeping despotism. Though limited to a few pages and published only once or twice a week, the papers passed from hand to hand and were read aloud in taverns and coffeehouses, so that their contents probably reached most urban households and a substantial minority of rural farms.

Activity: Primary Source Analysis- The Rise of Colonial Self-Government (America's History, Henretta, pgs. 100-101)

Authors: Alexander Spotswood and George Clinton

1. What policies does Spotswood want to pursue? Why can’t he persuade the House of Burgesses to implement them? According to Spotswood, what is wrong with Virginia’s political system? How does he propose to reform it?

Suggested Answer:

  • Policies included improving the militia, making voting more of an elite activity, and collecting taxes more efficiently.
  • The assembly delayed and stalled on the actions Spotswood wanted, due in part to it being staffed by men of a lower class who served for the salary, disdained wealthy privilege such as Spotswood enjoyed, and were careful to take no political action that would upset the people of their social class. The colony’s auditor also refused to listen to the governor.
  • Virginia’s political system allowed any man with half of an acre to vote, enabling lower classes to elect representatives from within their own classes, which could lead to increases in taxation. Family relations also protected some men in office, such as the colony auditor.
  • Spotswood wanted to reform the system by increasing the voting qualifications and making the assembly more answerable to his dictates.

2. Unlike the House of Burgesses, which was elected by qualified voters, the members of the Governor’s Council in Virginia were appointed by the king, usually on the governor’s recommendation. What is the council’s response to the plan to reform the political system? Given Spotswood’s description of the incident involving Philip Ludwell, where did the political sympathies of the council lie?

Suggested Answer:

  • The council was wary of antagonizing the lower classes, bearing in mind Bacon’s Rebellion a generation earlier.
  • The Ludwell incident reveals that the council wanted to keep a modicum of popular sovereignty through the House in order to keep the population contented.

3. What were Clinton’s complaints about the actions of the New York assembly? Did those actions represent a more or less serious threat to imperial power than the activities of the Virginia
Burgesses? Based on their correspondence with the Board of Trade, which governor—Spotswood or Clinton—was the stronger representative of the interests of the crown?

Suggested Answer:

  • Complaints: The assembly controlled the salaries and nominations of politicians of the colony, making Clinton’s officers dependent on the assembly and reducing his control. The assembly also refused to add any amendments to money bills for colony resources. The assembly named the commissaries for the militia companies, thereby controlling the economy.
  • Compared to the Virginia House, it appears that the New York Assembly had more control over colonial finances, and thus the government. Clinton
  • appears to have been powerless to deal with it.
  • Clinton appears to be a stronger representative of the crown’s interests because he advocates the Crown “putting a stop to these usurpations of the assembly” and increase royal control.

Summing Up: Unlike the French and Spanish, the British used a decentralized form of administration. Royal governors and locally elected assemblies governed. Most adult white males could vote. But colonial politics were characterized by deference rather than democracy. It was assumed that leadership was entrusted to men of high rank and wealth. Most colonial assemblies had considerable power over local affairs because they controlled the purse strings.

Closure: What were the major similarities and differences between the government of the mother country and that of the colonies?

Extension: John Peter Zenger Trial

Assessment: DBQ Practice- "Democracy in Old Wethersfield" (Center for Learning)

Was American society, as evidenced by Wethersfield, Connecticut, becoming more “democratic” in the period from the 1750’s to the 1780’s? Discuss with reference to property distribution, social structure, politics, and religion. (1976 – old-style DBQ answered primarily from the documents given rather than from documentary and outside evidence)

An Outline of American History (1994)." From Revolution to Reconstruction: Outlines: American History (1994): Chapter Two: Emergence of Colonial Government (6/8). N.p., n.d. Web. 16 July 2012. http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/H/1994/ch2_p6.htm.