The Political Climate of the Colonies

Voting in the Colonies

Free white males in the British colonies in North America were expected to vote and participate in political matters.

Learning Objectives

Describe the significance that voting had for civic identity and cohesion in the colonies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the colonies, public elections were events in which free white males owning property were expected to participate, displaying their civic pride by professing their political stance in front of the entire community.
  • From the earliest days of Anglo-American colonial development, white Anglo-American males enjoyed exposure from wide participation in the public and political spheres.
  • Although only those with property could vote, suffrage in the colonies was the most inclusive in the world at that time, with a majority of white males eligible.

Key Terms

  • civic: Of or relating to a citizen or citizenship.

Public Voting in the North American Colonies

Public colonial elections were events in which all free white males were expected to participate in order to demonstrate proper civic pride. Public office attracted many talented young men of ambition to civil service, and colonial North American suffrage was the most widespread in the world at that time; every free white man who owned a certain amount of property was allowed to vote. The widespread availability of property in the 13 colonies afforded most white males the chance to own some amount of property. Therefore, while fewer than 1% of British men could vote, a majority of white American men were eligible to vote and run for office. Thus, elections became the main forum in which men could profess political allegiances, publicly demonstrating their community civic pride.

Attendance on election days also served as a means of civic education and communal reinforcement of the appropriate, expected behavior of young males. Voting was public, with those running for office thanking their supporters (often treating them to rum in local taverns) after casting their votes. The public vote allowed for local community observation of the electoral process, as well as the political allegiances of males in the community.

Furthermore, elections often included speeches, rallies, celebrations, parades, and other celebratory demonstrations that reinforced the notions of civic duty, pride, and active contribution to the community. In this respect, the North American colonists differed from their European counterparts, the majority of whom were barred from civic participation. From early on in North American colonial development, Americans were exposed to a high degree of political participation and autonomy in their local affairs.

Colonial Government

In the colonies, governance was primarily conducted at the local level, with local white male populations participating extensively in politics.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the differences in political and civic life in Great Britain and the colonies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Many white male colonists participated in the courts, with lawsuits occurring frequently and many people working in the legal professions.
  • In contrast to European politics where aristocrats dominated, the field of politics in the colonies was open to white men of varied socioeconomic backgrounds, including small farmers and recent immigrants.
  • Government officials had to negotiate and engage with both economic elites and members of the middle and lower classes.

Key Terms

  • political sphere: A theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk; a realm of social life in which public opinion can be formed.

Political Culture: Participation in Colonial Government

American colonial governments were a local enterprise rooted deeply in communities. For instance, elected bodies, specifically the assemblies and county governments, directly determined the development of a wide range of public and private business. These assemblies handled land grants, commercial subsidies, and taxation. They were also involved in the oversight of roads, taverns, schools, and relief of the poor, making them fundamental to the development of public and private enterprises in a particular region.

Participation in local courts was very high in the colonies. When the county court was in session, Anglo-American men traveled for miles to serve as witnesses and jurors. Americans sued each other at a very high rate, with binding decisions made by local judges and juries instead of a great lord (as in Britain). This promoted the rapid expansion of the legal profession, so that the intense involvement of lawyers in politics became characteristic of the American political system by the 1770s.

Role of Local Community Government

Widespread participation in local community governments was also distinctive of the American colonies. Unlike Europe, where aristocratic families and established churches dominated the political sphere, American political culture was relatively open to economic, social, religious, ethnic, and geographical interests (although still excluding the participation of American Indians, women, and African Americans). Merchants, landlords, petty farmers, artisans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Germans, Scotch Irish, Yankees, Yorkers, and many other groups participated in local community government life.

Competing Factions

None of the colonies had stable political parties of the sort that formed in the 1790s, although each had shifting factions that vied for power. This was especially true in the perennial battles between appointed governors and the elected assembly. For instance, there were often "country" and "court" factions representing those opposed to and in favor of, respectively, the governor's actions and agenda. British-appointed governors also faced various degrees of opposition and resistance over new colonial policies which resulted in much negotiation between assemblies, voting populations, and colonial authorities.

Massachusetts also had a strong populist faction that typically represented the province's lower classes. This was a possible effect of the state's 1691 charter, which had particularly low requirements for voting eligibility and strong rural representation in its assembly. Additionally, non-English ethnic groups had clusters of settlements, such as the Scotch Irish and the Germans. Although each group assimilated into the dominant English Protestant commercial and political culture, they tended to vote in blocs and politicians often negotiated with group leaders for support.


Hence, the colonial American political system was remarkably different from Europe, where widespread public participation in the political sphere by free white males was expected and enjoyed. Local leaders found themselves directly negotiating and engaging with a wider body politic that included elites as well as petty farmers and ethnic immigrants who had a voice in the political process. Local politics was entwined with local commercial development and with land grants, subsidies, and entrepreneurial incentives stemming from government grants and incentives. While politics in colonial America were public and relatively accessible to most social groups of white males, it was primarily localized in scope—the 13 colonies were not united by a confederate system across regional boundaries until the outset of the American Revolution.

A early (Sometime in the 1700's) drawing of Savannah, Georgia.

Savannah, Georgia: Widespread participation in both colonial and local community governments was widespread among free white males in the 18th century.

Freedom of Expression and its Limits

Despite the restrictive nature of early colonial laws, the ideas of freedom of speech and expression emerged steadily over time.

Learning Objectives

Describe the limits on free speech in the colonies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Freedom of expression was not an established principle in early colonial America.
  • The most stringent bans on speech in the colonial period outlawed or censored religiously blasphemous speech, and failure to abide by these bans was often punishable by death.
  • However, research has indicated that from 1607 to 1700, freedom of speech expanded dramatically, laying a foundation for the political dissent of the Revolutionary War.
  • Several instances, such as the John Peter Zenger trial, set fundamental precedents that became the foundations for the later American principles of freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Key Terms

  • freedom of expression: The political right to communicate one's opinions and ideas via speech.
  • seditious libel: Criminal offences under English common law; overt conduct, manifested in printed forms of communication, that is deemed by the legal authority to tend toward insurrection against the established order.

Limits to Freedom of Expression in the Colonies

Although there remains much work to be done examining freedom of expression in the American colonies, historians generally agree that there were fewer prosecutions for seditious libel in the colonies than there were in England. However, colonial governments still exercised various forms of control over dissident speech.

The most stringent bans on speech in the colonial period outlawed or censored speech that was considered religiously blasphemous. A 1646 Massachusetts law, for example, punished persons who denied the immortality of the soul. In 1612, the governor of Virginia sentenced to death a person that denied the Trinity under Virginia's Laws Divine, Moral and Martial, which also outlawed blasphemy, speaking badly of ministers and royalty, and "disgraceful words." However, more recent scholarship focusing on seditious speech in the 17th-century colonies has indicated that from 1607 to 1700, freedom of speech expanded dramatically, laying a foundation for the political dissent of the Revolutionary War.

The Zenger Trial and Freedom of the Press

One such instance in which the concept of freedom of expression dramatically expanded was the Zenger Trial. John Peter Zenger, a New York newspaper editor, began to voice opposition to several policies implemented by the newly appointed colonial governor, William Cosby. Zenger published editorials detailing Cosby's rancorous quarrel with the colonial council over his salary, as well as Cosby's removal of Chief Justice Lewis Morris from the New York Supreme Court in order to replace him with a more pliable official.

Portrait of Sir William Cosby

Sir William Cosby, Governor of New York: Cosby was attacked by Zenger's paper for his actions while governor of New York.

Supported by members of the popular party, Zenger's New-York Weekly Journal continued to publish critical attacks on the royal governor. In 1734, Cosby issued a proclamation condemning the newspaper's "scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections," and in November, Zenger was arrested and charged with seditious libel. After more than eight months in prison, Zenger was defended in court by Philadelphia lawyer, Andrew Hamilton.

In the trial, Hamilton appealed directly to the jury, claiming that the truth could not be defamatory, and therefore, Zenger could not be found guilty of libel. Although the judge dismissed this claim entirely, Hamilton persuaded the jury to disregard the laws on libel in favor of this concept—an argument that convinced the jury to return a verdict of "not guilty. " Therefore, not only did the Zenger Trial result in a remarkable instance of jury nullification, but it also established a precedent for protecting the freedom of the press in the American courts.


The Zenger Trial: Depiction of Alexander Hamilton defending Zenger

The American Enlightenment

The American Enlightenment was an era of prolific discourse in which Anglo-American intellectuals studied human nature, society, and religion.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the central commitments of the Enlightenment, particularly as it appeared in the colonies

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Politically, the Age of Enlightenment is distinguished by an emphasis on liberty, democracy, republicanism, and religious tolerance.
  • Fundamentally, the Enlightenment was a highly intellectual endeavor, drawing together the intellectual elites of Europe and the Americas to form a transatlantic academic coterie with a common language and shared worldview.
  • Several key thinkers influenced the American Enlightenment, including John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.
  • John Locke argued that individuals have the right to create, alter, or abolish governments by their common consent.
  • Enlightenment thinkers often criticized religious institutions, seeing them as irrational, if not tyrannical.
  • The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is seen as an embodiment or culmination of Enlightenment ideas.

Key Terms

  • American Enlightenment: The intellectual thriving period in America in the mid- to late-18th century (1715–1789).
  • Adam Smith: A Scottish social philosopher and a pioneer of political economy.
  • Two Treatises of Government: A work of political philosophy published anonymously in 1689 by John Locke.

The Age of Enlightenment

The American Enlightenment is used to describe a period of prolific intellectual writing and discussion during the mid- to late-18th century, 1715–1789, mirroring similar circumstances in Europe. Influenced by the scientific revolution of the 17th century, key Enlightenment thinkers applied scientific reasoning to studies of human nature, society, and religion. The intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment employed scientific experimentation and reasoning to discover general principles that governed the movement of planets, gravity, and natural law; acquire knowledge about philosophical principles; and challenge unquestioned authorities or principles. Fundamentally, the Enlightenment was a highly intellectual endeavor—drawing together the intellectual elites of Europe and the Americas to form a transatlantic academic coterie with one common language and shared worldview.

Political Influence

Politically, the age is distinguished by an emphasis on liberty, democracy, republicanism, and religious tolerance—culminating in the writings of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and the drafting of the United States Declaration of Independence. Attempts to reconcile science and religion led to the growing appeal of Deism, often resulting from a rejection of prophecy, miracle, and revealed religion. Historians have considered how the ideas of John Locke and republican ideas merged together to form republicanism in the United States.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson: Founding father and third president of the United States.


Enlightenment thinkers reacted against the authoritarianism, irrationality, and perceived obscurantism of the established churches. Philosophers such as Voltaire depicted organized Christianity as a tool of tyrants and oppressors and as being used to defend monarchism. It was seen as hostile to the development of reason and the progress of science, and it was incapable of verification.

For these philosophers, an acceptable alternative was Deism, the philosophical belief in a deity based on reason rather than on religious revelation or dogma. It was a popular perception among the philosophers, who adopted deistic attitudes to varying degrees. Deism greatly influenced intellectuals and several noteworthy 18th-century Americans such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. The most articulate exponent was Thomas Paine, whose The Age of Reason was written in France in the early 1790s and reached America soon thereafter. Drawing on the principles of Deism and the Enlightenment's aversion to established faiths, James Madison later enshrined religious tolerance as a fundamental American right in the United States Bill of Rights.

Liberalism and Republicanism: Key Thinkers

In the decades before the American Revolution in 1776, the intellectual and political leaders of the colonies studied history intently, looking for guides or models for good—and bad—government. They especially followed the development of republican ideas in England. For example, the English political theorist John Locke was a significant source of influence and inspiration to the American intellectual elite. Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1691) challenged the principle that hierarchical, monarchical systems of government originated from God's divine law. Locke argued that governments were created through a social contract with the people, and a ruler who broke this contract could be legitimately deposed through violent or peaceful means. Essentially, Locke claimed that since men created governments, they could also alter or abolish them.

Portrait of John Locke

John Locke: John Locke is often credited with the creation of liberalism as a philosophical tradition.

Thomas Paine's Common Sense, published at the outset of the American Revolution, drew heavily on the theories of Locke and is largely considered one of the most virulent attacks on political despotism. Employing common language rather than the more academic prose employed by other Enlightenment writers, Paine argued that the North American colonies had a sacred duty to violently overthrow corrupt, monarchical British rule. Common Sense called for independence and challenged the largely accepted notion that a good government employed a balance of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Instead, Paine called for a republican system of government, with no king or aristocracy.

Portrait of Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine: Portrait of Thomas Paine by Auguste Millière.

The culmination of these enlightenment ideas occurred with Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, in which he declared: secure these rights [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.
Drawing on Locke, Smith, and Paine, the Declaration of Independence thus asserted to Britain and other contemporary observers that both George III and Parliament were violating colonial rights and freedoms and the American colonies intended to sever ties with Britain. Essentially, the Declaration of Independence, heavily inspired by Enlightenment political theory, proclaimed that the American people were fighting to maintain their essential freedoms and liberties by overthrowing despotic, irrational tyranny.

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