Democracy in the American Colonies vs. Today

Voting rights were often restricted by landownership in colonial America.
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The colonial origins of American democracy are diverse, and often indistinguishable from the U.S. system that exists today. From early models at Plymouth and Jamestown to pan-colonial associations before the Revolution, numerous varieties of democracy existed in the 13 colonies. Because these democracies often had limited suffrage, varying levels of religious freedom and slavery, they differed significantly from democracy today.

1 Virginia and Plymouth

Two different models of democracy emerged in colonial America: the Virginian model at Jamestown and the Mayflower Compact model at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Virginia's model was first, and it included an elected House of Burgesses, that first convened in 1619. Because Virginia was commissioned by the royal government in England, its governor was appointed by the king, not elected as is the case in modern America. The governor in Virginia had the right to convene or close the House of Burgesses, a power that does not exist for the U.S. president or state governors today. Because the Pilgrims at Plymouth landed north of Virginia's borders, and were outside the purview of royal authorities, they created the Mayflower Compact, a stronger self-governing model than Virginia's. For a time, Plymouth's governors and councils were elected. Eventually, however, Plymouth was absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where a royal governor was appointed by the king.

2 Less Suffrage

One of the major differences between colonial democracy and today's political system is the meaning of the "right to vote." In today's America, everyone can vote regardless of factors like gender, race or socioeconomic class. Colonial America did not have a single political system, and each state had different laws that regulated voting. In the North, especially in New England, the right to vote often surrounded religious qualifications, such as membership in the Puritan or Congregational Church. In the earliest years of the Southern colonies, the right to vote extended to virtually all white males. By the time slavery became a large presence in the South, however, the right to vote became more limited to only land-holding white males. No women could vote in any colony, and could not vote in the United States until the 20th century.

3 Religious Freedom

Freedom of religion is a hallmark of American democracy today, but that was not so before the American Revolution. While the colonies were religiously diverse -- Puritans in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Catholics in Maryland -- each individual colony often exercised enormous power over religious expression. Massachusetts, for example, was strictly run by Puritan laws. This prompted the creation of the nation's first colony where religious freedom was granted: Rhode Island. The colony was founded by Puritan opponents who were fleeing religious oppression in Massachusetts. Rhode Island was the exception, however, and most colonies did not grant religious freedom as America knows it today.

4 Appointed Leaders

With the exception of the courts, most political leaders in America today are elected by voters. That was far from the case in colonial American democracy. Governors of individual colonies, for example, were almost always appointed, either by the king or by the owner of the individual colony. These appointed governors, more importantly, were rarely citizens of the colony they governed. Instead, they were often sent by the king directly from England. Only Connecticut and Rhode Island had elected governors, as all American states do today. The upper house of bicameral colonial legislatures -- the equivalent of today's Senate -- was almost always appointed, usually by the governor. Lower houses -- today's House of Representatives -- were usually elected, however.

Kevin Wandrei has written extensively on higher education. His work has been published with Kaplan,, and Shmoop, Inc., among others. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Cornell University.