In the decades before the American Revolution, the British North American colonies walked a fine line between dependence on their mother country and the ability to govern themselves. Colonies under the royal form of government lived in total subjection to the Crown, while those with proprietary or charter governments had significantly more independence and decision-making freedoms. Regardless of their differences, all of these early forms of government paved the way for modern-day democracy.
Maximum Subjugation: Royal Government
The royal government was the form most frequently used in the colonies. As the name implies, the British Crown wielded the most direct control over its people, even selecting its chief executive, the governor. The governor would then appoint the colony's judges, and the citizens would elect representatives for the colony's assembly. During colonial times only property-owning white men were permitted to vote. The assembly had the power to levy taxes and allocate financial resources, but all decisions required the approval of both the governor and the Crown. Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas provide examples of this government system.
Partial Independence: Proprietary Governments
Unlike royal governments, proprietary governments were subject to less British control. The Crown assigned land grants to individuals, or proprietors, who were then responsible for governing the colonies. Most proprietary governments consisted of a governor, judges and an assembly. Giving more authority to the citizens, though, often led to problems, as many proprietary colonies took advantage of their increased authority to govern on their own. In consequence, the status of these colonies was reduced to a royal government. Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland are the sole colonies to have retained their proprietary status by the time of the American Revolution.
The Road to Rebellion: Charter Governments
Of the three early structures, charter governments were both the rarest and the most independent. The Crown granted groups of investors from joint-stock companies, organizations much like today's corporations, permission to establish a colony and its own government. In return, one-third of the profit from business in the colonies was sent back to England. Like proprietary systems, the relative freedom of charter governments made them prone to rebelliousness, and many were converted to royal colonies as a result. By the arrival of the Revolution, only two charter colonies, Rhode Island and Connecticut, remained.
Although the greatest differences among the three governments were their degrees of subjection to the Crown and the circumstances under which their founders left England, they still shared some similarities. All colonial governments believed in individuals' rights to life, liberty and property, as well as a legislature chosen by the people. The concepts of different branches of government through separation of powers and checks and balances also originated with these early systems. All these ideas would eventually become cornerstones of the U.S. as a nation.
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