Imperial Institutions

No factor shaped the founding of English-speaking North America more fundamentally than a strong disinclination by both Crown and Parliament to bear the heavy, initial costs entailed in acquiring overseas dominions before the 1660s. English monarchs and statesmen were also long distracted from colonization ventures by the events preceding the civil wars of the 1640s and then by the Interregnum (1649 1660) that followed the beheading of Charles I. During the first half century of trans-Atlantic expansion, the burden of empire instead fell upon such corporations as the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay Companies, such proprietors as the first two generations of Maryland’s Baltimore dynasty, and such privately organized, self-financing groups of emigrants as the religious exiles who founded Plymouth, Rhode Island, and New Haven.

English settlers consequently found themselves thrown upon their own devices for keeping order and resolving controversies by the general inattention of officials in London toward colonial affairs. In order to enlist cooperation from their resident populations, leaders in the early colonies eventually granted the right of making laws to democratic assemblies by entitling a large portion of free, adult males to vote and hold office (subject to qualifications based on property ownership and, sometimes, religion). The rise of representative government was crucially important for Anglo-American political history, not only as the root of all subsequent constitutional development but also as the basis for later claims that long-standing custom had endowed the colonial assemblies with near-autonomous rights of self-governance.

For almost three decades after Charles II’s coronation in 1660, however, the restored Stuart dynasty pursued ambitions of turning Great Britain into an absolutist state modeled after the example of Louis XIV in France. The Stuarts sought to tighten control over their overseas possessions through royal bureaucrats, much as the Bourbons did in New France. Beginning in late 1660, the monarchy started supervising overseas affairs through a special committee of the Privy Council. By 1675, when it was reconstituted as the Committee on Trade and Plantations (or Lords of Trade), this committee had emerged as the first effective agency for monitoring colonial developments and enforcing Crown policies in America. The Stuarts eventually moved to increase the number of dominions under their direct control (known as royal colonies, as opposed to those created by charters to corporate entities or grants to proprietors). Before 1660, the only royal government on the North American mainland had been in Virginia, but during the early 1680s, New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts came under the monarchy’s immediate rule. By 1732, eight of the thirteen original colonies had Crown status. (Connecticut and Rhode Island retained charter privileges, while Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware continued as proprietaries.)

James II showed exceptional animosity toward parliamentary institutions during his brief reign (1685 1688). Striving to curb legislative rights and privileges both at home and abroad, he moved first to dispense with representative government in North America. The king consolidated every colony from West Jersey through New Hampshire into the Dominion of New England. The dominion was a prototype for reorganizing the empire along the model of Spanish America, where viceroyalties were administered by governors-general, appointed by the court at Madrid with power to promulgate ordinances and impose revenues within their jurisdictions. No provision was made for elective assemblies to pass laws or enact taxes. Before James II could abridge legislative self-government in his other American dependencies, however, he was driven from power by the Revolution of 1688, which established constitutional protections for Parliament’s traditional rights.

The Declaration of Rights, presented to William and Mary in 1689, defined the conditions under which they would be recognized as king and queen of England, opening the way to constitutional monarchy. William and Mary reinstated representative assemblies as an integral part of colonial administration. (British Museum, London, United Kingdom/Bridgeman Art Library) William III and Mary II, who succeeded James II, countermanded his autocratic measures and reinstated the legislatures annulled by him. The British government thereafter treated Anglo-American assemblies as an integral part of colonial administration. Representative government functioned as a highly effective and practical vehicle for mobilizing support from American elites and taxpayers, whose financial resources not only paid the salaries of each colony’s executive officers and judges, but often provided substantial military assistance during wartime. British ministries consequently enjoyed the luxury of reaping a significant influx of customs duties from American commerce, while the cost of governing those overseas possessions amounted to a pittance of the Treasury’s annual budget.

In 1696, the Privy Council formed a new committee, the Lords Commissioners of Trade and Plantations (or Board of Trade), to monitor commerce and fisheries, evaluate candidates for royal governorships and other positions, formulate policy concerning events in America, and identify any acts passed by colonial legislatures that should be disallowed by royal veto. Interest in colonial affairs steadily waned among members of Parliament and the royal bureaucracy after 1725, however, and, over the next two decades, the Board of Trade reflected this general apathy by pursuing its duties indifferently, if not lethargically. Aside from a brief resurgence of activity and influence at the Privy Council under the Earl of Halifax for nearly a decade after 1748, the Board had minimal impact upon politics in the British colonies. Its most important activity was reviewing legislative acts for the royal signature, and in this task the Board proved quite accommodating to colonial wishes by approving all but 469 (5 percent) of the 8,563 statutes submitted through 1776. British policy and attitudes toward America evolved in an atmosphere of reasonably well intentioned if poorly informed neglect, so that imperial oversight from London was rarely intrusive or heavy-handed.

In March 1765, the Stamp Act challenged colonial notions of local autonomy and awakened a dormant dispute over the degree of American exemption from parliamentary laws. Angry protests led to repeal of the tax as depicted in this British cartoon funeral in March 1766. (New York Public Library, New York) By the 1750s, the British Empire, which then included about 1.5 million inhabitants throughout the Western Hemisphere, had matured into a conglomeration of self-governing political units whose constitutional relationship to the British monarchy and Parliament lacked any formal definition or even mutual understanding. Parliament saw itself as having virtually unlimited lawmaking authority within all the monarchy’s possessions except Ireland, which had its own parliament, endowed with essentially sovereign powers over taxation, and its own internal governance.

Colonial legislative leaders conceded that, as a matter of practical necessity, deference should be accorded to Parliament for standardizing legal institutions critical to ensuring justice and promoting prosperity equally throughout the empire. These measures included amending the common law, bringing efficiency to judicial proceedings, and making uniform regulations for contracts, currency, or commerce. Otherwise, however, Anglo-Americans assumed that their assemblies occupied a status similar to Ireland’s parliament: subordinate in authority and prestige to Parliament, but still endowed with exclusive rights of levying taxes within their own boundaries and of regulating their own internal affairs by statutes enacted under the royal signature. A latent conflict thus existed over the degree to which Americans could claim exemption from parliamentary laws. This issue remained dormant until the 1765 Stamp Act challenged American notions of local autonomy by imposing taxes upon a wide range of legal and business transactions in the colonies.

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