Foundations of U.S. Government

Colonial American Government

English Political Heritage

American colonists drew on their English political heritage, including limits on the power of the monarchy, the need for Parliament’s consent to any laws, and guarantees of basic civil liberties to citizens.
The majority of colonists in the 13 British colonies that became the United States were English. Thus, English political traditions that had evolved over centuries shaped the colonists' views on government. England was a monarchy, but over the centuries limits had been placed on the power of the monarchy.

The idea of limited government in England has its roots in the Magna Carta, a charter signed by King John of England in 1215 to settle a revolt by many of his feudal barons. This "Great Charter" laid out important ideas about limits on government. It declared that the government could not imprison a "free man" or seize his private property "except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land." At the time, most people in England were unfree peasants and were excluded from these protections. Nonetheless, the Magna Carta asserted the principle that the monarch's power was limited and that the monarch's subjects had certain fundamental rights. Over time, the rights that were originally intended for privileged members of society were extended more broadly across society.

Another important document in England's political heritage is the Petition of Right. This 1628 document stated the monarch could not levy taxes without Parliament's consent or imprison persons without legal cause and that martial law could not be declared in peacetime. Parliament wrote the document and forced King Charles I to sign it, in protest of what Parliament viewed as his abuses of power. Although Charles I and some later monarchs ignored these principles, they influenced American colonists' views of government and the power of government to tax.

In the mid-17th century, England experienced political conflict that led to a civil war. In that civil war, King Charles I (reigned 1625–49) was deposed and executed. Later, the monarchy was restored, but conflict between the king and Parliament continued, partly on religious grounds. In 1688 that conflict resulted in King James II (reigned 1685–88), a Catholic, fleeing the country. The Protestant-led Parliament invited James II's daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, both Protestants, to become England's monarchs. This "Glorious Revolution"—so called because it was a peaceful transfer of power—showed that Parliament had become the supreme authority in England's government. In 1689 Parliament passed the English Bill of Rights, which established the supremacy of Parliament's authority by declaring that the monarch could not suspend laws or levy taxes without Parliament's consent. It also established that people had basic civil liberties, such as the right to a fair trial and protection against excessive bail and fines and against cruel and unusual punishments. Many of the provisions in the English Bill of Rights were incorporated into the U.S. Bill of Rights a century later.

Colonial Governments

American colonists had elected representatives serving in colonial assemblies, entrenching a belief in the right to self-rule.
There were many differences among the governments of the 13 colonies, but they were all guided by charters, or written constitutions, and had a colonial assembly elected by colonists. The first elected colonial assembly to be established was the Virginia House of Burgesses, which first met in 1619. White male landholders elected the burgesses, who represented geographic political districts in Virginia.

The Pilgrims who established the Plymouth Colony had intended to settle in Virginia but landed far to the north in what is now Massachusetts. Before leaving their ship, the Mayflower, 41 of the male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact. This historic agreement from 1620, the first plan of self-government in the colonies, served as the voluntary rules of governance and community cooperation within the Plymouth Colony. The men pledged to become a civil "body politick" and abide by laws established for the colony. Plymouth Colony had a lawmaking body elected by free men called the General Court, which elected the governor.

There were qualifications for voting in all colonies, usually limiting voting rights to white male landowners. In Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, the Puritans also required voters to be church members. One Puritan minister, Thomas Hooker, disagreed with this policy and left Massachusetts to found what became the colony of Connecticut. In 1639, settlers of that colony adopted the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which established a system of self-government in which voting rights were not limited to members of a particular faith.

Each colony had an elected colonial assembly, a separate executive branch headed by a governor, and a system of courts. By the mid-18th century, eight of the colonies were royal colonies: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

In royal colonies, the king appointed the governor, who was chief executive of the colony and reported directly to the king. Royal governors had great authority in theory, but the vast distance from Britain and their dependence on colonial assemblies for funds limited their power in practice. Thus, much of the governing in the colonies was carried out by the colonial assemblies. This was true not only in royal colonies, but also in Connecticut and Rhode Island, governed under charters, and the proprietary colonies of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, where the proprietor named the governor.

Members of the lower house of colonial assemblies were the elected representatives of the voters in the colonies. Voting rights were limited to male property owners. The lower house had lawmaking powers and—along with the governor and the Governor's Council—the power to tax. The great distance from Britain and control over funds for the governor enabled colonial assemblies to exercise real political power. It was the assemblies that represented the will of the colonists.
Colonial government included an executive power (the royal governor), a legislative power (the Governor's Council and Colonial Assembly), and a judicial power (the Governor's Council).