How did political turmoil in 17th century Britain influence life in the colonies?

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During the first 40 years of the 17th century the colonies were just being founded: Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620. In the early years, the colonists struggled merely to survive, and the colonies were neither going concerns economically nor major population centers that required regulation.

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During the first 40 years of the 17th century the colonies were just being founded: Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620. In the early years, the colonists struggled merely to survive, and the colonies were neither going concerns economically nor major population centers that required regulation.

At the same time, King James I of England was going through a difficult adjustment period in his new role. As King of Scotland, he had enjoyed greater freedom of action and fewer constraints from Parliament, but once he became ruler of both countries in 1603, the English Parliament sought to reign him in by asserting the power of the purse. James was a notorious spendthrift, and Parliament sought to ring concessions from the King in exchange for the money he needed.

As the relationship between sovereign and Parliament grew ever more fraught, no one was giving much thought to the colonies in the New World. During the 1630s, the number of colonies began to rise with the formation of Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Maryland, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. English neglect of New England played a role in the founding of Connecticut and Rhode Island. Neither colony was created by an expedition from England but rather by the initiative of Massachusetts colonists. Connecticut was settled by colonists from Plymouth looking to head off the expansion of the neighboring Dutch colony, New Netherland. Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams, who sought independence from Puritan religious persecution in Massachusetts.

Charles I succeeded his father, James I, in 1625 and found himself facing the same financial difficulties but was less willing to accept an assertive Parliament. He attempted to rule without the body but had no power to raise money. This dilemma would consume Charles' attention, and with no Parliament in session throughout the 1630s, the period of Salutary Neglect began.

From the 1630s through the 1650s, the colonies expanded, conducted business, and negotiated with each other and Native American neighbors largely as they saw fit. During this period, the colonists figured out which crops and farming techniques were appropriate for North American geography. They developed charters and bodies of self-government to provide for the administration of day to day affairs.

In September 1640, Charles summoned Parliament to request funds for the suppression of a rebellion in Scotland. This Parliament would not be dissolved. It pressed long-standing complaints against the King and passed reform laws which mandated that Parliament be convened every three years and that the King could not dissolve Parliament without its consent. Investigations of Charles' chief counselors and his use of military force to assert his authority brought matters to a breaking point, and by 1642, King and Parliament were at war. From 1642 to 1646 and from 1648 to 1649, the forces of Parliament defeated and largely destroyed the armies of King Charles. After the second conflict, Charles was tried for treason and executed. Great Britain became a Puritan republic until 1660.

During the English Civil War, no new colonies were settled. The existing colonies continued to grow and prosper, seeing to their own needs as they arose without help from London. In 1660, the monarchy was restored, and Charles II ascended the throne. At this point, the English monarchy made its greatest contribution to the colonies. In 1664, the Royal Navy seized New Netherland from the Dutch. The Dutch colonies were soon replaced by the royal colonies of New York and New Jersey. The addition of Pennsylvania in 1682 completed the link between the colonies of New England and the South.

The capture of the Dutch colonies also ushered in the effective beginning of mercantilism in the New World. The colonies were now too large and prosperous to be completely neglected, and the British government sought to regulated commerce with the New World. Thus trade with the empires of the Dutch, France, and Spain was restricted. The colonies became captive markets for manufactured goods from England and were discouraged from developing their own manufacturing capacity. Raw materials from the New World were, in turn, exported to the mother country.

Mercantilism became the principle mechanism of interaction between the colonies and Great Britain into the 18th century. Continued turmoil in England precipitated the Glorious Revolution when James II was deposed and replaced by William and Mary. This event permanently settled the question of Parliament's supremacy over the monarchy. William of Orange, the new monarch, was more concerned with his Dutch holdings than with his new kingdom. His principle innovation would be ending the Anglo-Dutch wars and reorienting English foreign policy toward competition with France, which would bring on the Anglo-French wars of the 18th century and would create conflict along the northern western borders of the colonies.

Ultimately, a capacity and preference for of self-government would be the most lasting legacy of 17th century turmoil in the colonies. Without supervision from London, the Colonies had to govern themselves. They discovered they could do this and do it well. Representative bodies and written charters came to be viewed as superior to the arbitrary, top down rule of a monarch in a far away land. As Parliament asserted its authority throughout the century, many of the principles that came to be enshrined in the English constitution were accepted in America. These same principles—the power of the purse, independence of the legislature, freedom of religion—would form the foundation of the US Constitution a century later.

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