Colonial Government and Politics

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What were the basic features of the government of the American colonies? What were the major similarities and differences between the government of the mother country and that of the colonies?

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Most of the American colonies shared a few basic governmental features, all of which were derived from English political tradition. All had a governor that was either royally appointed or chosen by the proprietors of the colony. In some colonies, governors were often natives of the colony, but in most...

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Most of the American colonies shared a few basic governmental features, all of which were derived from English political tradition. All had a governor that was either royally appointed or chosen by the proprietors of the colony. In some colonies, governors were often natives of the colony, but in most they were sent from Britain, usually having secured the appointment by earning the favor of the King or one of his ministers. These governors had to work with the lower house of a representative assembly, chosen through elections by landowning colonists (the amount of land a person had to own varied by colony). These representative bodies, comparable to the British House of Commons, made laws and often fiercely guarded their power to tax and emit money. Most colonial assemblies, like Parliament, had an upper house. In Parliament, the upper house was the House of Lords, but in the colonies it generally served as a governor's council, which was chosen by the executive himself. Finally, most colonies, like England, had county governments, with county officials that included sheriffs, coroners, and justices of the peace. These people were either appointed or elected, but as in England, they were the political officials that most ordinary people interacted with the most regularity. What was most different was the extent of political participation. While both the British and colonial governments set landholding requirements for voting, the extent of landholding in the colonies was far greater than in Great Britain. Therefore, a much higher proportion of American colonists could vote than in the mother country.

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