What Kind of Government Was Used by British Colonists?
The British colonists ultimately answered to the English monarch and Parliament, but the colonies did have local governments to represent their interests at home and abroad. Although some diversity existed, the colonial governments were typically led by a governor appointed by the monarch. The governor then appointed a council of advisors who helped him administer the colony. The colonists elected a legislative body or assembly to represent their interests before the governor.
1 Colony Types
There were three types of British colonies in North America: charter, proprietary and royal. However, by 1730 most had become royal colonies, with the exception of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The charter and proprietary colonies began as business ventures that eventually came under the rule of the English Crown. The monarch would grant charters to individuals or companies to explore and claim land in North America so long as they founded colonies that would ultimately answer to the king. All colonies had a charter that outlined the authority of the monarch, the rights of the proprietary businesses seeking colonization and the creation of colonial governments.
The British monarch appointed governors to oversee his interests in the royal colonies and eventually in all colonies. Since the colonial governor answered to a king and parliament that resided on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean, he often had a difficult time enforcing the Crown's policies. Due to the great distance, the colonies became, in essence, self-governing and resentful of a distant monarch. For this reason, the elected assemblies, or legislative bodies, became more powerful.
The governor's council typically included men of wealth and influence. Their primary purpose was to see the governor's – and hence the king's – policies carried out in the colony. As the colonies grew prosperous, the power of the council likewise grew. The first council is believed to have been the House of Burgesses, organized in Virginia in 1619. Often the council stood for the interests of the wealthy elite, and the legislative assembly represented new immigrants and the middle class.
By 1680, every colony except New York had an elected assembly to give the colonists some say in governmental affairs. Voting was primarily restricted to all free men, but sometimes voting restrictions included just property owners. Over time, the British colonists began to feel that while the English Parliament could control citizens in England, its power in the colonies should be limited. The power of the elected assemblies depended upon the will of the Crown to enforce its policies in the colonies. Without enforcement, the assemblies could pass legislation against the wishes of the colonial governor. The colonists came to view the assemblies as their primary form of government, and it was through these assemblies that they began to resist English control in the decades leading up to the American Revolution.
- 1 Northern State University: Colonial Government
- 2 Florida Center for Instructional Technology: Types of Colonial Governments, 1682-1730
- 3 The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: The Thirteen Colonies
- 4 University of Groningen American History: An Ordinance and Constitution of the Virginia Company in England 24 July 1621