Representative Government

The first colonial assembly convened at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, twelve years after the colony’s founding. The Virginia Company permitted any parish or other community to elect two deputies who could attend sessions with the governor and his appointed council, provided that the constituency paid its delegates’ expenses. While at the assembly, the representatives’ primary duties were to endorse decisions made by the company shareholders in London and enact necessary ordinances. The assembly’s actions lacked legal force without later approval from company headquarters, however, and it had no right to meet on a recurring basis.

When Virginia became a royal colony in 1624, the Crown clearly hoped to govern the colony with officials independent of popular influence, since its governors dispensed with calling the legislature into session. The king’s need for local sanction of his plan to inaugurate a tax on exported tobacco finally led to calling an elected assembly in 1628 to enact the levy. Annual sessions only began to be held on a regular basis after 1630. The members organized themselves on the model of the House of Commons in 1634 by setting counties as the basic constituency (along with a few boroughs) and allocating two seats for each, regardless of population.

Representative institutions next developed under the Massachusetts Bay Company, whose charter established a governmental structure appropriate for a business corporation. The charter stipulated that the investors (or freemen) would elect a board of trustees (or assistants, chaired by a governor) at shareholders’ meetings (or General Court) where all major decisions and regulations would be debated and adopted. The company moved its headquarters to the colony by instructing the first governor to carry the charter to New England in 1630. When the General Court first convened soon after, fewer than a dozen shareholders had apparently emigrated, and just eight attended the meeting in their role as freemen. They transferred the power of choosing executive officials, making laws, and laying taxes from the freemen in general to the assistants and governor, who of necessity consisted of the same eight individuals. The assistants broadened the definition of a freeman in 1631 to include all adult men who were full church members, by which citizenship came within the reach of every male settler, although their political duties by then extended no further than voting for a legislative council.

In response to objections made in 1632 that the assistants had exceeded their authority by levying the colony’s first tax, the General Court decreed that prior notice would be given when future revenues were needed and that no tax would be imposed without majority approval from a deputation comprised of two freemen sent from each of the towns specifically to vote on that subject. Two years later, other protests arose that the freemen had been denied their right under the charter to participate in the making of laws as well. This grievance defied any solution based on a literal reading of the charter, since, even at that early date, it was impractical for the several hundred men admitted as citizens to function efficiently as a legislature, and within a few years, the number of freemen would certainly exceed 1,000. The colony’s leaders therefore directed each town to elect two delegates to join with the assistants and governor in enacting ordinances. The transmutation of a commercial bureaucracy into a civil republic was then essentially accomplished.

Representative government did not mature in Virginia and Massachusetts until after each was first settled. Legislative bodies emerged in both colonies out of the administrative apparatus of a business enterprise, but each proved sufficiently durable to continue functioning after the chartered company from which it sprang had expired. In neither colony was the government consciously fashioned after England’s parliamentary system of a popularly chosen House of Commons, a hereditary House of Lords, and the reigning monarch. Elected representatives in both Virginia and Massachusetts did not at first organize themselves into a separate chamber interacting with the other branches of government, but rather sat together with the governor and his appointive council, to whose agenda and judgment they generally deferred. Virginia’s legislature almost certainly continued to hold unicameral sessions until 1642, while the Massachusetts General Court became bicameral in 1644.

Democratically chosen assemblies emerged elsewhere in Anglo-America in a manner similar to developments in Virginia and Massachusetts. Rarely did the first sitting of any colony’s legislature occur until two years after its earliest settlers had arrived, while in Virginia, Plymouth, Rhode Island, New York, and Georgia, the opening sessions of their assemblies were not held until a decade or more after their founding. Most assemblies either evolved from corporate structures or were designed by proprietors given royal land grants to encourage overseas expansion, and many bore absolutely no resemblance to the British Parliament’s structure or manner of lawmaking. For example, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669) envisioned a single-chamber parliament wherein the proprietors, commoners, and indigenous nobility a fanciful mix of landgraves, caciques, and manor lords sat together. Bills could only be drafted by the proprietors, however, and the role of commoners and nobles was limited to accepting or rejecting what was placed before them.

Most colonies required about two decades for legislative government to establish continuity and mature into bicameral institutions. As in Virginia and Massachusetts, elected representatives initially met in joint sessions with the governor and his council, and they routinely acted in a judicial capacity on an ad hoc basis. No assembly attempted to base representation upon districts of equal populations (along lines of the modern concept of one man, one vote); instead, members were apportioned among various units of local government at a fixed ratio (usually two for each county, town, or parish). Colonial assemblies developed in most respects along parallel lines after 1690. Despite their varied origins, Anglo-American governments ultimately came to resemble Great Britain’s bicameral legislative system, in which bills required approval by both a popularly chosen assembly and an appointive governor’s council, save for a few exceptions: Pennsylvania’s legislature was unicameral since its council could not reject acts passed by the lower house, while in the de facto republics of Rhode Island and Connecticut, both houses of the legislature were elected by voters. In the royal colonies, especially where the chief executive was a Crown official, it was natural for Americans to see their governments as little Parliaments and to idealize them as having inherited the full panoply of constitutional rights and liberties won during the long struggle since Magna Carta to secure the rights of Englishmen.


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