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The systems of government in the American colonies looked much like the British government. England and the colonies had executives (England had a king; each colony had a governor) and two-house legislatures (England had a Parliament with a House of Commons and a House of Lords; each colony had an assembly with a House of Representatives and an upper house, or council). Despite the similar structures, these governments were different. The king of England represented the nation’s sovereign power, but since Parliament had beheaded Charles I in 1649 and deposed James II in 1688, kings had learned to govern with the support of Parliament. In Parliament the House of Lords represented England’s aristocrats while the House of Commons represented the merchants or middle class. Members of Parliament did not represent local constituencies; their real job was to make laws for the good of the entire realm. In the colonies, on the other hand, the governor, appointed by the king, represented the king’s interests and the interests of the empire while the assembly represented the local colonial interest. Members of the assembly had to live in the town they represented. As long as England and her colonies had similar interests, these two systems worked well. But when the interests of the British nation and her colonial subjects began to differ in the 1760s, the system fell apart.
Salutary Neglect. The American colonies had governed themselves for much of their history. The British nation, preoccupied with its own problems, had allowed the colonial assemblies to make their own rules. Parliament passed regulations to control all trade in the empire but had not enforced these rules, allowing the colonies to grow and prosper under a policy of salutary neglect. Governors, appointed by the king, would spend at most a few years in the colonies and then return home to a more lucrative position in England, having performed their duty of protecting the king’s interest and advancing their own. The assemblies did the real work of governing, levying taxes to pay for local improvements and paying salaries of the governor and other civil officers. The assemblies jealously guarded their prerogatives and those of their own colony. Virtually every colony disputed its borders with every other colony and at times went to war over its boundaries. The colonies were also threatened by Native Americans and by Spanish and French imperial ambitions. In these conflicts each colony looked to England for defense.
Plan for Union. In 1754 tensions with the Iroquois and French encroachments into the Ohio River valley prompted Benjamin Franklin to call for a union of the colonies, to be governed by a Grand Council chosen by the colonies and a governor general chosen by the king. This plan for a colonial union failed as the colonial assemblies, jealous of their individual interests, rejected the idea. Franklin remarked that the colonists would never unite unless the British forced them to do so.
French and Indian War. The tensions between the French and the English colonists escalated into the first global conflict, involving England and France and most of Europe, fought in the American colonies, the West Indies, the Mediterranean, India, and Indonesia. The British won the war, driving the French from North America and from India; wresting Havana, Cuba, from Spain; and establishing British control of the seas. But the war was expensive, costing Britain more than £122 million (close to £1 billion in today’s currency). Since the British people were already heavily taxed and since the debt had been incurred in defending the American colonists, Parliament decided to tax the colonists. Colonists insisted that Parliament could regulate trade but could not tax them because they were not represented in Parliament. In 1765 Parliament passed the Stamp Act, requiring the colonists to pay a tax on all printed materials and legal documents. This provoked a near rebellion in the colonies, and most colonial leaders insisted that they could be taxed only by their own elected representatives.
Virtual and Actual Representation. The Stamp Act dispute showed how far apart colonial and British ideas about government were. The idea that no one could be taxed without his consent was a fundamental British principal, but Parliament did not represent the British people in the way the American colonists insisted they must be represented. Parliamentary boroughs had been created centuries earlier, and by 1760 some of England’s largest cities did not have representatives in Parliament. However, according to British political theory all subjects were represented because members of Parliament were concerned with the good of the whole empire; they were not chosen to defend the petty local interests of a community but to make wise laws for the whole nation. Parliament represented the interests of all. In the American colonies, however, members of a colony’s assembly were chosen to represent the local interests of a community; the good of the entire society would be advanced by a careful adherence to the good of each constituent part.
Montesquieu. The American perception of differences was sharpened by the publication in French of Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws in 1748, which was translated into English by 1752 and regularly reprinted in London and Scotland throughout the century. Montesquieu’s work, the first treatise on political theory since Aristotle, examined different forms of governments: tyrannical, aristocratic, and democratic. Each of these forms was suited to a particular kind of country, and each operated through different principles. While Montesquieu studied many different ancient and modern political societies, he admired eighteenth-century England the most. Its government balanced all three political forms: the king represented despotic power; the aristocracy was represented in the House of Lords; and the House of Commons was the democratic branch. Each part balanced the others, and each branch checked the other two, preventing the government from becoming completely tyrannical or disintegrating into democratic anarchy. It was vital to Montesquieu’s theory that each branch’s powers be strictly separated, otherwise the whole system would be corrupted and deteriorate. Montesquieu was a better political theorist than a student of English politics: in England the government’s functioning powers were not separated at all but in fact were combined as the prime minister controlled the legislative branch through his power to appoint executive officers. While Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws did not describe England, but it did describe the kinds of governments that had emerged in the American colonies. The colonists read Spirit of the Laws as a powerful defense of their forms of government, in which legislative and executive powers were separated, and the assemblies checked the governors.
Dickinson and Boycott. The British did not believe that the assemblies could check the governor, nor did Parliament accept the idea that assemblies had exclusive power to tax the American colonists; but leaders in Parliament did recognize that they could not enforce the unpopular Stamp Act. Rather than provoke a rebellion, Parliament bowed to political pressure and rescinded the law. Parliamentary leaders insisted that Parliament could tax the colonies but hoped the colonial assemblies would take the initiative to raise revenue for Britain. When this did not happen, in 1767 Parliament passed a new series of tariffs, the Townshend duties, on goods imported into the colonies. These duties were meant both to raise revenue and to protect English goods from colonial competition. Predictably, the colonists again objected. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania wrote a series of essays, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, arguing that while Parliament could regulate external trade, only the colonial assemblies could tax the colonists. Parliament would never accept this idea, but the colonist’s century and a half of experience convinced them of its legitimacy. To prove their point, colonists agreed not to import any British goods, which they knew would pressure British merchants to pressure Parliament to rescind the duties.
Crown Salaries. The boycott succeeded, and Parliament rescinded most of the Townshend duties. The colonists were convinced of their economic power though Parliament did not accept Dickinson’s arguments. To prove its power Parliament maintained the three-penny-per-pound duty on tea. The colonists still were able evade this tax and get tea more cheaply from Dutch and Danish traders. For five years relations between the colonies and England were relatively tranquil, with the notable exception of the killing of five civilians in Boston by British troops in 1770. Charged with murder, the soldiers were ably and successfully defended by John Adams, one of the leaders in colonial opposition to Parliament’s taxation powers. The soldiers were acquitted, and calm was restored until 1773, when a series of ill-advised British political moves provoked more colonial resistance. The British government proposed that the Crown, and not the assembly, should pay the governor, judges, and other civil officers in Massachusetts. The assembly reacted angrily to this threat to take away their control over these officers and moved to impeach Chief Justice Peter Oliver, who accepted his salary from the Crown.
The Quebec Act. In 1773 Parliament began debates on the Quebec Act to govern the vast province won from France ten years earlier. This act had something in it to offend most colonists. For New Englanders, overwhelmingly and fanatically Protestant, the Quebec Act protected the religious traditions of Roman Catholics, who were the majority of Quebec’s Christian population. For colonists from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, who all claimed the Ohio River valley, the Quebec Act granted title to this entire region to the former French province. These colonies had been bitterly divided over the Ohio country. Virginians had set up land companies to sell off the land to white farmers; Pennsylvanians hoped to open trade with the Wabashs, Miamis, and other native peoples; and New Yorkers threatened war against both Virginia and Pennsylvania to protect the claims of the Iroquois in the region. While the three colonies threatened war on each other to prevent their gaining an advantage in the region, they would cooperate to ensure that Quebec did not get control of the region.
Tea Act. Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773 to revive the fortunes of the East India Company, on the verge of collapse after its conquest of India. The Tea Act gave the company a monopoly on all tea sold in the British empire and also promised the company a rebate on the taxes it would have to pay in England. American merchants, who could buy tea more cheaply from Dutch or Danish merchants, were angered by this act of favoritism. The fact that two sons of Massachusetts royal governor Thomas Hutchinson (brother-in-law of Andrew Oliver) were designated to sell the East India Company tea did nothing to appease the colonists. Sons of Liberty, political action groups formed during the Stamp Act controversy, organized to prevent the tea from being unloaded. When the first ship, the Dartmouth, reached Boston, the Sons of Liberty would not allow the tea to be unloaded while Hutchinson refused to allow it to sail until it had unloaded and paid the tax. This political standoff ended when a mob of colonists disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded the Dartmouth and dumped its cargo into the harbor.
Aftermath. When Parliament learned of the tea’s destruction, it ordered the port of Boston closed until the colonists repaid the East India Company. It suspended the Massachusetts charter government, replacing it with one more amenable to British rule. It restricted the power of the town meetings, allowing them to meet only once a year and taking from them the power to choose sheriffs, magistrates, jurors, and judges. Gen. Thomas Gage, the military commander of British forces in North America, was sent to restore order in the troublesome province, which Parliament hoped to isolate. But these new laws, which the colonists called the Intolerable Acts, came too late. A Philadelphia mob used electricity to burn Hutchinson in effigy, and the Virginia House of Burgesses called for a day of fasting and prayer in support of the suspended Massachusetts government. When Virginia’s governor, John Murray, Lord Dunmore, suspended the Burgesses for supporting Massachusetts, the Virginians met outside their assembly hall and called on the other colonies to choose delegates to a Continental Congress, which would seek redress for their common grievances against the British government.
The Suffolk Resolves. In Massachusetts, Gage found that it was easier for Parliament to order him to govern than it was for him to create a government. With the government that had operated since 1691 suspended, the people in the towns continued to govern themselves. In Suffolk County, which included Boston and the surrounding towns, a county convention met in September 1774. This convention acknowledged the colony’s allegiance to George III but insisted that the Massachusetts Government Act and the closing of Boston harbor were “gross infractions” of natural law, the British constitution, and their colonial charter that the courts and other offices created under this act were unconstitutional. Suffolk County would support sheriffs and other officials who ignored these illegal courts, but officials of Gage’s government would be considered “incorrigible enemies of the country.” Suffolk county called on each town in the province to elect delegates to a Provincial Congress to meet in Salem in October, and it directed tax collectors to hold on to their receipts until the Provincial Congress could determine what to do. By the end of 1774 two governments operated in Massachusetts; one, commissioned by the king, led by General Gage, held power in Boston; the other, with neither commission nor charter, met in Salem. Those in the province who supported British authority found it prudent to move to Boston, which Gage now fortified; in the rest of Massachusetts the towns and county conventions governed.
First Continental Congress. Every colony except Georgia was represented in Philadelphia in the first Continental Congress, which met in September 1774. Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania, who hoped the colonies would ultimately reconcile with England, proposed a union of the colonies, similar to what Franklin had proposed in 1754. From Boston, delegates John Adams and his cousin Samuel believed that independence was inevitable, and though they were joined by Virginia’s Patrick Henry in espousing this, independence was still a “strange and terrible” idea for most of the delegates. The delegates rejected Galloway’s proposal but were not ready to go along with the Adamses and Henry. Instead Congress called for a boycott of British goods to pressure British merchants to force Parliament to rescind the Intolerable Acts. Congress called on each colony to establish a committee of safety to enforce the boycott and to set prices. After petitioning the king, Congress adjourned, to meet again on 10 May 1775.
Outbreak of War. The political situation had changed dramatically when Congress met again in May. In February 1775 Parliament had declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion. Gage was authorized to use force in suppressing the uprising. Prime Minister Lord North at the same time proposed a compromise: Parliament would refrain from taxing the colonies if the colonial assemblies would collect revenues and send them to England. Similar to the compromise proposal made in 1765, this one had less of a chance for success. In April, Gage received Parliament’s proclamation of rebellion, and decided to arrest Samuel Adams and merchant John Hancock, whom he knew to be in Concord. He also knew that colonists were collecting and storing weapons in Concord, which he intended to seize along with the rebellion’s leaders. Early on the morning of 19 April 1775, British regulars left Boston, reaching the town of Lexington at dawn. There they met a hastily assembled group of colonial minutemen. The regulars ordered the militia to disperse; the colonials refused; and the regulars fired. (The regulars expected that this mob would flee at the first sound of gunfire). The regulars then marched on to Concord. There they could not find either Adams or Hancock, but they did meet more militia, and this time the colonials were not overwhelmed by British power. When the minutemen stood their ground, the regulars panicked and began a long, disastrous retreat to Boston, with colonial militia chasing them, firing from behind rocks, trees, and walls. General Gage, fortified in Boston, could no longer maintain the pretense that he governed the province of Massachusetts.
Second Continental Congress. The outbreak of war changed the political situation. More colonial leaders were now certain that the Empire and the colonies could not be reconciled. Congress took a number of seemingly contradictory steps. In response to a query from the Massachusetts provincial congress about its legitimacy to govern, Congress told the provincial congress to operate under terms of the 1691 charter but to declare the office of governor vacant. Congress also created a Continental Army, and to demonstrate that the rebellion was not isolated to Massachusetts, appointed George Washington of Virginia to lead it. Congress authorized paper money to help pay for this army. In addition to these defensive measures, moderates still hoping for reconciliation pushed Congress to adopt the “Olive Branch petition,” drafted by John Dickinson, which asked the king to reconsider the policies that had provoked the crisis. At the end of July, Congress rejected North’s conciliatory proposal, and at the end of August, George III rejected the Olive Branch petition.
New Governments. When the New Hampshire and South Carolina provincial congresses asked for advice on how to govern, Congress recommended that each colony have a “full and free representation of the people, and that the Representatives if they think it necessary, establish such a form of Government, as in their judgment will best produce the happiness of the people.” In each colony the Provincial Congress declared itself to be the House of Representatives, declared the office of governor vacant, and continued governing. By the end of 1775 royal authority had collapsed in most of the American colonies though what would replace that authority was very much in doubt. John Adams wanted Congress to recommend model constitutions to the colonies, but moderates in Congress did not want to suggest that the people of the colonies could form new governments, as this would mean that they aimed for independence, not reconciliation.
1776. In January 1776 Thomas Paine’s Common Sense convinced Americans that they could be independent, that reconciliation would be impossible. When Washington forced Gage to evacuate Boston in March, it seemed that independence might even be easily obtained. Congress sent negotiators to Quebec to secure that colony’s alliance, and on 10 May, Congress recommended that the colonies begin forming new governments. This was not independence, Joseph Duane said, but it was a “machine for fabricating independence.” On 2 July, Congress declared that the thirteen colonies were free and independent states.
State Constitutions. Each state except Connecticut and Rhode Island, who simply eliminated the references to the monarch in their colonial charters, drew up new plans of government. Most of the new constitutions of 1776 and 1777 created systems that looked very much like the old charter governments though the governor would be almost completely under the assembly’s control: he would be chosen by the assembly or by the people and would not have power to veto the assembly’s actions. Virginia, which drew up the first constitution in June 1776, began its constitution with a declaration of rights, a model other states followed. By beginning with a Bill of Rights, the states showed that the purpose of government was to secure rights to citizens. Pennsylvania created a unique government, with a single-house legislature chosen every year by all adult male taxpayers, making the legislature the most representative body in the world.
Constitutional Conventions. The first constitutions were temporary measures; some of the men helping to write them, such as John Rutledge in South Carolina, hoped that ultimately the colonies could be reconciled with England; but by 1778 reconciliation was impossible, and problems were beginning to emerge from the hastily constructed state governments. Some states that now had more leisure to consider the best way to organize a government began to revise their state constitutions. One problem with these earlier constitutions was that they had been written by the state legislatures, which the constitutions were supposed to control. The idea emerged that a constitution could not be written by a legislature but had to emanate from a special convention which the people had chosen specifically to write a constitution. This convention would represent the sovereign power of the people and could create a fundamental law, delegating power to the legislature that the constitution created. When the Massachusetts legislature submitted a constitution to the people of the state in 1778, the people rejected it because the legislature did not have the power to write a constitution. New Hampshire held the first constitutional convention in June 1778 though the constitution this convention submitted to the people was also rejected. After 1778, states would use conventions, rather than the legislature, to draw up their fundamental laws.
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Though each state created a new government, the states were also members of a union, the United States of America. As the United States they would form treaties with other nations, maintain Washington’s army, issue paper money, and borrow money to pay for the war. John Dickinson began drafting a plan of union in the weeks after independence was declared, and in the fall of 1777 Congress submitted the Articles of Confederation to the states. The Articles of Confederation was not a constitution since the Confederation was not an organic entity like a state. The articles were an agreement to cooperate, which the states would do in certain limited ways. Under the articles each state could choose no fewer than two and no more than seven delegates to Congress. No matter how many delegates a state sent, and no matter how many citizens a state had, each state would have only one vote in Congress. In order to do anything nine states would have to agree; to change the Articles every state would have to agree. Congress could not tax citizens or states, nor could it draft soldiers; to raise money Congress would have to determine the relative wealth or man power of each state and then request money or troops from the states accordingly. Approved by Congress in 1777, the articles were not ratified by all of the states until 1781. Maryland withheld support until New York and Virginia surrendered their western lands to the Confederation. As part of the British empire, the colonies had slowly and painfully learned the necessity to cooperate. Without this union the United States would not have won their independence. By 1787 they would discover the union they had created under the strain of war was not sufficient to maintain their liberty or independence in times of peace.