American Assemblies, Colonial

In the realm of politics, there was no more significant trend in British colonial America than the ascendance of representative assemblies to positions of power. Originally intended to automatically approve the mandates of royally appointed governors, they had, in almost every colony, taken on roles far beyond that by the time of the American Revolution. New England, which boasted far less royal control than other areas and a powerful legislature from an early date, was an exception to this rule. Since there was almost no political contact between colonies, and relatively little royal oversight, the story of how colonial assemblies formed and gained power is the story of political development in colonial America. Several excellent accounts treat the ascendance of the assemblies in the eighteenth century, but the story of each body’s origins is not as well known. Seventeenth Century Beginnings The first colonial assembly in British North America met in the church at Jamestown in 1619. Part of a larger Virginia Company effort to improve morale and draw colonists after the colony’s brutal first years, the House of Burgesses, as it was known, was to meet once a year and have power to enact any measures it felt would aid in the good government of the colony. The assembly consisted of the governor, his council, and two burgesses from each parish. Any acts could be vetoed by the governor or the company’s leadership in London and could not run contrary to English law. The earliest laws were carry-overs from company policies, based on military discipline, that forbade drunkenness, idleness, and other forms of bad behavior. They also regulated trade with neighboring tribes and required regular church attendance. In the aftermath of the 1622 attack led by Opechancanough, the Virginia Company lost its charter, and Virginia became a royal colony. The status of the legislature was uncertain for a time, largely because nobody in England cared. In 1639, Charles I decided that the burgesses could be called yearly to pass acts concerning the governance of the colony. If Virginia’s early years were marked by a surplus of authority on the part of the London Company, the opposite statement could be made for the island colony of Bermuda. On Bermuda, a divided group of planters viciously fought among themselves in the absence of any real government during the 1610s. In 1620, in an effort to ease factional tension and levy taxes to fund public projects, an assembly was called. Later in the seventeenth century, other English possessions in the Caribbean would undergo similar processes. Virginia and Bermuda had legislatures granted to them, but in Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Maryland, Connecticut, and New Haven colonies whose legislatures trace their roots to the 1630s the impulse to form assemblies came from within. By the 1630s, colonists had come to expect assemblies. Even in Maryland, a proprietary colony granted to Lord Baltimore, the charter required that he make laws with the consent of the colonists. In New England, particularly among the Puritans, the institution of town government was very strong, and some of this strength carried over to colonial assemblies. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, each town elected deputies to the General Court, which could grant land, charter new towns, and levy taxes. Connecticut and Rhode Island, each essentially an offshoot of the older colony, had similarly powerful assemblies. The colonies founded after the Restoration exhibited a change in the way representative assemblies were perceived. From the 1660s, assemblies were no longer seen as a response to colonization, but rather as reason for people to settle in a given colony. With a weaker tradition of local government to draw upon, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly faced an uphill battle against the will of the lords proprietors. South Carolina’s Commons gradually usurped the governor and the council (which became the upper house), claimed for itself wideranging powers, and eventually faced little resistance, either from the proprietors, or, after the Revolution of 1719, the royal governors. The Dutch ran New Amsterdam as a military and commercial enterprise, especially under the leadership of Peter Stuyvesant in the late 1640s, even though Dutch and English residents complained about the arbitrary nature of Stuyvesant’s rule and the lack of local government. Even after the English took over the colony, little effort was made to convene an assembly. Although most colonies had some representative legislative body, they generally remained politically weak until the end of the seventeenth century. William Penn’s holy experiment of Pennsylvania featured a legislature that was rather liberal-minded on paper, less so in practice. Free men who owned 50 acres of property or paid taxes were eligible to vote for members of the assembly, which would work with the governor, basically by accepting or rejecting, or amending, the governor and council’s proposed legislation. William & Mary – ‘Virginia led’: Reveley addresses special session … Colonial Assembly Photograph by Granger House of Burgesses – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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