The Colonial Experience

The American democratic experiment did not begin in 1776. The colonies had been practicing forms of self-government since the early 1600s.

Each of the thirteen colonies had a charter, or written agreement between the colony and the King of England. Charters of royal colonies provided for direct rule by the king. Governors were appointed by the king and had almost complete authority. The legislatures controlled the salary of the Governors and used this influence to keep them in line with colonial wishes. The first colonial legislature was the Virginia House of Burgesses, established in 1619.

When the first pilgrims voyaged to the New World, a bizarre twist of fate created a spirit of self-government. These pilgrims of the Mayflower were bound for Virginia in 1620, but instead landed at Plymouth. Since Plymouth did not lie within the boundaries of the Virginia colony, the Pilgrims had no charter to govern them. They drafted the Mayflower Compact, which in essence declared that they would rule themselves.

Colonial economies operated under mercantilism, a system where the colonies existed in order to increase the mother country’s wealth. England tried to regulate trade, and it forbid colonies from trading with other European countries. England also maintained the right to tax the colonies. Trade and taxation were difficult for England to control, so an informal agreement emerged. England regulated trade but allowed colonists to levy their own taxes. Smugglers soon exploited the English inability to guard ports by secretly trading against Parliament’s wishes.

Religious freedom served as a major motivation for Europeans to venture to the American colonies. Puritans and Pilgrims in Massachusetts, Quakers in Pennsylvania, and Catholics in Maryland represented the growing religious diversity in the colonies. Rhode Island was founded as a colony of religious freedom in reaction to zealous Puritans. As a result, many different faiths coexisted in the colonies.

The colonial experience was one of absorbing British models of government, the economy, and religion. Over the course of about 150 years, American colonists practiced these rudimentary forms of self-government that eventually led to their decision to revolt against British rule. The democratic experiment of American self-rule was therefore not a sudden change brought about by the Declaration of Independence. By 1776, Americans had plenty of practice.

Source: The Colonial Experience
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