United states history


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The Mayflower Compact was the first instrument of government drawn up in the English Colonies and as such reflected the tentative origins of the campaign for self government that culminated in the American Revolution 156 years later.

In the name of God, Amen.

We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Offices, from time to time, as shall be though most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience."
Source: Richard Current, American History: A Survey, (New York: Knopf, 1961), p. 17.

The following account describes the rapid development of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century.
Founded in 1630 by Puri­tans from England, Massachusetts Bay grew rapidly, aided in its first dec­ade by 15,000 to 20,000 immigrants from England, and after that by nat­ural increase. By 1700, Massachu­setts Bay's population had risen to almost 56,000 and by 1750, to approximately 188,000, making it one of Great Britain's most populous North American possessions.

This rapid population growth forced the government of Massachusetts Bay (called the General Court, which in­cluded the governor, the deputy gov­ernor, the executive council of assis­tants, and the representatives, all elected annually by the freemen to organize new towns. Within the first year of settlement, the six original towns of Massachusetts Bay were laid out Dorchester, Roxbury, Water­town, Newtown (now Cambridge), Charlestown, and Boston, all on the Charles River. By the time Middlesex County (west of Boston) was organized in 1643, there were eight towns in that county alone, and by 1700, there were twenty two.

The organization of towns was an important way for Puritan leaders to keep control of the rapidly growing population. Unlike settlers in the mid­dle and southern colonies, colonists in Massachusetts Bay could not simply travel to an uninhabited area, select a parcel of land, and receive individual title to the land from the colonial gov­ernor. Instead, a group of men who wanted to establish a town had to ap­ply to the General Court for a land grant for the entire town. Leaders of the prospective new town were then selected, and the single church was or­ganized. Having received the grant from the General Court, the new town's leaders apportioned the available land among the male heads of households who were church mem­bers, holding in common some land for grazing and other uses (hence the "town common"). In this way, the Pu­ritan leadership retained control of the fast growing population, ensured Puritan economic and religious domi­nation, and guaranteed that large numbers of dissenters  men and women who might divert the colony from its "holy mission" in the wilder­ness would not be attracted to Mas­sachusetts Bay.

Source: William Bruce Wheeler and Susan D. Becker, eds. Discovering the American Past: A Look as the Evidence, vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), p. 51-52.

In the following account originally published in 1616, King James I, of England describes how royal power is divinely conveyed.
The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth: for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself they are called gods.

Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of Divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God hath power to create, or destroy, make, or unmake at His pleasure, to give life, or send death, to judge all, and to be judged nor accountable to none: to raise low things, and to make high things low at His pleasure, and to God are both soul and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects: they have power of rais­ing, and casting down: of life, and of death: judges over all their subjects, and in all causes, and yet accountable to none but God only. They have power to exalt low things, and abase high things, and make of their subjects like men at the chess; a pawn to take a bishop or a knight, and to cry up, or down any of their subjects, as they do their money. And to the king is due both the affection of the soul and the service of the body of his sub­jects...

I conclude then this point touching the power of kings, with this axiom of divinity, that as to dispute what God may do, is blasphemy...so is it sedition in subjects, to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power; but just kings will ever be will­ing to declare what they will do, if they will not incur the curse of God. I will not be content that my power be disputed upon: but I shall ever be willing to make the reason appear of all my doings, and rule my actions according to my laws.
Source: James I, Works (London, 1616), 529—531, reprinted in Richard W. Leopold, Arthur S. Link and Stanley Corbin, eds., Problems in American History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1966)

Ironically most of the ideas which Americans eventually used to challenge the power of the British King over them, derived from English political philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). In 1689 Locke wrote "The Second Treatise on Civil Government" which describes the then radical concept of the right of individuals to govern themselves.
Man being born...with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power not only to preserve his property—that is, his life, liberty, and estate—against the injuries and at­tempts of other men, but to judge and punish the breaches of that law in others... Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to ap­peal to, with authority to decide con­troversies between them and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another...

Wherever, therefore, any number of men so unite into one society, as to quit every one his executive power of the law of nature, and to resign it to the public, there, and there only, is a political, or civil society. And this is done wherever any number of men, in the state of nature, enter into society to make one people, one body politic under one supreme government, or else when any one joins himself to, and incorporates with, any govern­ment already made. For hereby he authorizes the society, or which is all one, the legislative thereof, to make laws for him, as the public good of the society shall require, to the execution whereof his own assistance...is due.

Men being...by nature all free, equal, and independ­ent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in a secure enjoy­ment of their properties and a greater security against any that are not of it...

Whosoever therefore out of a state of nature unite into a community must be understood to give up all the power necessary to the ends for which they unite into society, to the majority of the community... And this is done by...agreeing to unite into one polit­ical society...between the indi­viduals that enter into or make up a commonwealth. And thus that which...actually constitutes any po­litical society is nothing but the con­sent of any number of freemen ca­pable of a majority to unite and incor­porate into such a society. And this...[gives] beginning to any lawful govern­ment in the world.

Source: John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government reprinted in David E Shi and Holly A Mayer, eds., For the Record: A Documentary History of America (Mew York, 1999), pp. 106-107.

The first act establishing freedom of religion was passed by the overwhelmingly Catholic Maryland Colonial Legislature at the request of Lord Baltimore. By today’s standards the measure was limited. It simply said that anyone believing in Christianity would not be molested by the colonial government or individuals in the practice of his or her faith. It did not extend that protection to non-Christians. However taken against the backdrop of state sanctioned or favored religion in most nations and in the rest of the colonies, the very declaration that anyone was free to worship in the Christian faith, regardless of denomination, was considered a major statement of religious tolerance and the first step toward the religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitituion. Part of the statute appears below:
And whereas the inforceing of the conscience in matters of Religion hath frequently fallen out to be of dangerous Consequence in those commonwealths where it hath been practiced, And for the more quiet and peaceable government of this Province, and the better to preserve mutuall Love and amity amongst the inhabitants thereof, Be it Therefore…Ordeyned and enacted…that noe person or persons whatsoever in this Province…professing to belieive in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies troubled in the free exercise thereof…or in any way compelled to the beliefe or exercise of any other religion against his or her consent…
Source: Website, “From Revolution to Reconstruction, Documents: The Maryland Toleration Act, 1649.”

British and American political thinkers harbored vastly differing views on representative government. Those differences are outlined in the two passages below. The first is from Thomas Whately, The Regulations Lately Made published in 1765 and the second is from the Providence Gazette, May 11, 1765)
The British View: The Fact is, that the Inhabitants of the Colonies are represented in Parliament: they do not indeed choose the Members of that Assembly; neither are Nine Tenths of the People of Britain Electors; for the Right of Election is annexed to certain Species of Property, to peculiar Franchises, and to Inhabitancy in some particular Places; but these Descriptions comprehend only a very small Part of the Land, the Property, and the People of this Island...

The Colonies are in exactly the same Situation: All British Subjects are really in the same; none are actually, all are virtually represented in Parliament; for every Member of Parliament sits in the House, not as Representative of his own Constituents, but as one of that august Assembly by which all the Commons of Great Britain are represented. Their Rights and their Interests, however his own Borough may be affected by general Dispositions, ought to be the great Objects of his Attention, and the only Rules for his Conduct; and to sacrifice these to a partial Advantage in favour of the Place where he was chosen, would be a Departure from his Duty; if it were otherwise, Old Sarum would enjoy Privileges essential to Liberty, which are denied to Birmingham and to Manchester; but as it is, they and the Colonies and all British Subjects whatever, have an equal Share in the general Representation of the Commons of Great Britain, and are bound by the Consent of the Majority of that House, whether their own particular Representatives consented to or opposed the Measures there taken, or whether they had or had not particular Representatives there.

The American View: To infer, my lord, that the British members [of Parliament] actually represent the colonies, who are not permitted to do the least act towards their appointment, because Britain is unequally represented, although every man in the kingdom, who hath certain legal qualifications can vote for some one to represent him, is such a piece of sophistry that I had half a mind to pass by the cobweb without blowing it to pieces. Is there no difference between a country's having a privilege to choose 558 members to represent them in parliament, though in unequal proportions to the several districts, which cannot be avoided, and not having liberty to choose any? To turn the tables,  if the Americans only had leave to send members to parliament, could such sophistry ever persuade the people of Britain that they were represented and had a share in the national councils?... Suppose none of the 558 members were chosen by the people, but enjoyed the right of sitting in parliament by hereditary descent; could the common people be said to share in the national councils? If we are not their constituents, they are not our representatives... It is really a piece of mockery to tell us that a country, detached from Britain, by an ocean of immense breadth, and which is so extensive and populous, should be represented by the British members, or that we can have any interest in the house of commons.
Source: John M. Blum, The National Experience: A History of the United States (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), pp. 90 91.

The following vignettes describe the voting laws of Connecticut and South Carolina.
Connecticut: That all such inhabitants in this Colony as have accomplished the age of twenty-one years, and have the pos­session of freehold estate to the value of forty shillings per annum, or forty pounds personal estate in the general list of estates in that year wherein they desire to be admitted freemen; and also are persons of a quiet and peace­able behavior, and civil conversation, may if they desire it, on their procur­ing the selectmen of the town wherein such persons inhabit, or the major part of them, to certify that the said per­sons are qualified as above said, be ad­mitted and made free of this corpora­tion, in case they take the oath pro­vided by law for freemen: which oath any one assistant or justice of the peace is hereby empowered to admin­ister in said freemen’s meeting.

And all such persons admitted and sworn, as aforesaid, shall be freemen of this corporation; and their names shall be enrolled in the roll of freemen in the Town-Clerk’s office of that town wherein they are admitted, as afore­said...

And that if any freeman of this corporation shall walk scandalously, or commit any scandalous offence, it shall be in the power of the Superior Court in this Colony, on complaint thereof to them made, to disfranchise such freeman; who shall stand disfran­chised till by his good behavior the said Superior Court shall see cause to restore him to his franchisement or freedom again: which the said Court is empowered [sic] to do.

South Carolina: Be it enacted by his Excellency John Lord Carteret, Palatine, and the rest of the true and absolute Lords and Proprietors of this Province, by and with the advice and consent of the rest of the members of the General As­sembly, now met at Charlestown for the south and west part of this Prov­ince, and by the authority of the same, that every white man (and no other) professing the Christian religion, who has attained to the age of one and twenty years, and hath been a resident and an inhabitant of the parish for which he votes for a representative for the space of six months before the date of the writs for the election that he offers to give in his vote at, and hath a freehold of at least fifty acres of land, or shall be Able to pay taxes to the support of this government, for the sum of fifty pounds currant money, shall be deemed a person qual­ified to vote for, and may be capable of electing a representative or representa­tives to serve as a member or members of the Commons House of Assembly for the parish or precinct wherein he actually is a resident.
Source: Acts and Laws of His Majesty's English Colony of Connecticut in New England (New Haven, 1769), 80-81; Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina. (Columbia, 1838), III, 2-3., reprinted in Richard W. Leopold, Arthur S. Link, and Stanley Corbin, eds. Problems in American History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1966), p. 33-34.

Influencing voters through various "enticements" is a practice older than the nation as we see in this vignette which describes George Washington's liberal distribution of rum to influence the voters of Frederick County, Virginia Colony in 1758. Although in this instance Washington encouraged the rum to be distributed to those inclined to vote against him as well.
Candidates frequently arranged for treats to be given in their names by someone else. Lieutenant Charles Smith managed this business for George Washington during a cam­paign in Frederick County in 1758. Two days after the election, which Washington had not been able to at­tend, Smith sent him receipts for item­ized accounts that he had paid to five persons who had supplied refresh­ments for the voters...

On election day the flow of liquor reached high tide. Douglas S. Freeman calculated that during a July election day in Frederick County in the year 1758, George Washington’s agent sup­plied 160 gallons to 391 voters and unnumbered hangers-on. This amounted to more than a quart and a half a voter. An itemized list of the refreshments included 28 gallons of rum, gallons of rum punch, 34 gal­lons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, and 2 gallons of cider royal...

To avoid the reality as well as the appearance of corruption, the candi­dates usually made a point of having it understood that the refreshments were equally free to men of every political opinion. If a candidate’s campaign was under investigation, it was much in his favor if he could show that among his guests were some who had clearly said that they did not intend to vote for him. Washington reflected an accept­able attitude when he wrote while ar­ranging for the payment of large bills for liquor consumed during a Frede­rick County election: I hope no Exception were taken to any that voted against me but that all were alike treated and all had enough; it is what I much desired.

Source: Richard W. Leopold, Arthur S. Link and Stanley Corbin, eds., Problems in American History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1966), p. 48.

By any 21st Century measure, colonial laws, enacted even in a limited democratic setting, were strict and severe so as to prevent any resistance to authority. Here are some laws from the Connecticut colony enacted in 1672 to insure proper respect for God, family and the Christian commonwealth.
1. If any man or woman, after legal conviction, shall have or worship any other God but the Lord God, he shall be put to death.
2. If any person within this colony shall blaspheme the name of God, the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, with direct, express, presumptuous, or highhanded blasphemy, or shall curse in the like manner, he shall be put to death.
3. If any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.
4. If any person shall commit any willful murder, committed upon malice, hatred, or cruelty, not in a man's just and necessary defense, nor by casualty [accident] against his will, he shall be put to death.
10. If any man steals a man or mankind and sell him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall be put to death.
11. If any person rise up by false witness wittingly and of purpose to take away any man's life, he or she shall be put to death.
14. If any child or children above sixteen years old and of sufficient understanding, shall curse or smite their natural father or mother, he or they shall be put to death, unless it can be sufficiently testified that the parents have been very unchristianly negligent in the education of such children, or so provoked them by extreme and cruel correction that they have been forced thereunto to preserve themselves from death or maiming.
15. If any man have a stubborn or rebellious son, of sufficient understanding and years, viz. sixteen years of age, which will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother and that when they have chastened him, he will not harken unto them; then may his father or mother, being his natural parents, lay hold on him and bring him to the magistrates assembled in court, and testify unto them that their son is stubborn and rebellious, and will not obey their voice and chastisement...such a son shall be put to death.
Source: George Brinley, ed, The Laws of Connecticut (Hartford, 1865), pp. 9-10, reprinted in David E. Shi and Holly A Mayer, eds., For the Record: A Documentary History of America (New York, 1999), pp. 106-107.

Alexander Hamilton, an Annapolis physician, described two meals he had on a 1744 journey from Maryland to New York. The first is a dinner with a ferryboat and his family on the Susquehanna River. The second is of a "Dutch" family in New York. The descriptions provide a glimpse into the home life of many colonial families.
They ate a homely dish of fish without any kind of sauce. They desired me to eat, but I told them I had no stomach. They had no cloth upon the table, and their mess was in a dirty, deep, wooden dish which they evacuated with their hands, cramming down skins, scales, land all. They used neither knife, fork, spoon, plate, or napkin because, I suppose, they had none to use. I looked upon this as a picture of that primitive simplicity practiced by our forefathers...before the mechanic arts had supplied them with instruments for the luxury and elegance of life, I drank some of their cider, which was very good.
One day att two o'clock, [I] dined att one Corson's, an inn across the Narrows from New York's Long Island. The landlady spoke both Dutch and English. I dined upon what I never had eat in my life before a dish of fryed clams, of which shell fish there is abundance in these parts. The family said grace; then we began to...stuff down the fryed clams with rye bread and butter. They took such a deal of chawing that we were long at dinner, and the dish began to cool before we had eat enough. The landlady called for the bed pan. I could not guess what she intended to do with it unless it was to warm her bed to go to sleep after dinner, but I found that it was used by way of a chaffing dish to warm our dish of clams. I stared att the novelty for some time, and reaching over for a mug of beer that stood on the opposite side of the table, my bag sleeve catched hold of the handle of the bed pan and unfortunately overset the clams, at which the landlady...muttered a scrape of Dutch of which I understood not a word except "mynheer," but I suppose she swore, for she uttered her speech with an emphasis.
Source Gentleman's Progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton, 1744 reprinted in Pauline Maier, Inventing America: A History of the United States, vol. 1 (New York, 2003), p. 136.

Perhaps the most famous speech to emerge from the Revolutionary War Era is Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" oration before 122 delegates of the Virginia House of Burgesses who met illegally in St. John's Church in Richmond [The House of Burgesses had earlier been Virginia's Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore] on March 23, 1775. Henry called for armed resistance to the British. Note the numerous references to the potential political enslavement of the colonists by the British Empire.
Mr. President:

No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope that it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen, if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve. This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate...

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House?

Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the minis­try and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope.

If we wish to be free...we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!

They tell us, sir, that we are weak—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house...?

Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of the means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we pos­sess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave... There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!

Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace! Peace!”—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle...? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

Source: William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (New York, 1997), p. 89-91.

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