Democratic Advances in Colonial Political Life

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Democratic Advances in Colonial Political Life
England was separated from her colonies by 3000 miles of ocean. She was deeply involved in acquiring territory and expanding trade in all parts of the world. England, therefore, did not attempt to supervise her colonies during the early part of the colonial period (salutary neglect). As a result, the colonists enjoyed a great amount of freedom. They learned to rely upon themselves and to manage their own political affairs. They gained a large measure of self-government and made notable advances toward democracy.
Under the policy of salutary neglect, English law guided the colonists in the following ways:

  1. The rule of law was an idea that every member of society, including the king, has a duty to obey the law.

  2. The Magna Carta established the right to a trial by a jury of peers, and

  3. The English Bill of Rights guaranteed that citizens be informed of the levying of taxes, that the power of the king be limited by Parliament, and that all citizens have the right to the freedom of religion.

Milestones of Colonial Democracy:

  1. House of Burgesses: Established in 1619, this was the first representative democracy in America. The people, through their elected representatives, gained a voice in the government and a share in the making of laws. Similar lawmaking bodies were later introduced into all the colonies. Most colonial legislatures consisted of two houses: a council, or upper house, generally appointed by the governor; and an assembly, or lower house, elected by the voters.

  2. Mayflower Compact: Drawn up by the Pilgrims in 1620, this document set forth the principle of government by the consent of the governed. This means that a government derives its authority from the majority of the people and that it retains power only as long as the people support it.

  3. Town Meetings: In each New England Village, the people held periodic town meetings. In this way the people themselves directly managed the affairs of the community. This was an example of direct democracy.

  4. Power of the Purse: The elected assemblies had the power to levy taxes and authorize the spending of public funds. This power is called the power of the purse. By threatening to withhold the money necessary to pay government salaries, an assembly could force the governor to comply its wishes in such matters as approving legislation and appointing officials.

Undemocratic Features of the Colonial Government:

  1. The right to vote was given only to male property owners. In some colonies, particularly Massachusetts, there were also religious qualifications for voting.

  2. By 1750, all colonies were royal colonies. In all the colonies except Connecticut and Rhode Island the governor was appointed by the king or proprietor. In most of the colonies, the governor appointed officials without the consent of the assembly. He also chose the council, or upper house of the legislature. Therefore, colonial assemblies and colonial governors were usually in conflict with one another.

  3. Laws passed by the legislature could be killed or vetoed by the governor or king.

  4. Although Georgia was originally established as a penal colony that outlawed slavery, it soon became a plantation colony that allowed slavery.

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