The New England Colonies Questions and Answers

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What was the political structure in the New England colonies like?

The political structure in the New England colonies was characterized by a high degree of self-rule, elected legislative assemblies, a governor appointed by the British, and town meetings. The independence the colonies enjoyed from the British contributed to their outrage at the tightening of British authority prior to the Revolution through the establishment of laws and policies such as the Intolerable Acts.

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The political structure of the New England colonies fluctuated. It tended to depend on the settlers themselves and whatever their relationship with England was like at the moment.

Let’s look at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1629, King Charles I gave the Massachusetts Bay Company a charter (i.e., a grant) to develop a colony in New England. The company had relative independence from England, so long as it benefited England economically and politically. For instance, the company could elect its own governor. That governor was John Winthrop. If you’ve heard the phrase “city upon a hill,” you’ve heard of Winthrop.

With Winthrop in charge, the political structure of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was theocratic. Church and state were not separate. They were basically one and the same. Politics were controlled by church officials. If you disagreed with the church officials/politicians, you were in trouble. Anne Hutchinson critiqued the politics of the colony. She was punished and...

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The New England colonies were founded by people who left England to escape religious persecution. These were mostly Puritans who also had strict beliefs of their own about proper conduct, and they disapproved of many customs and behaviors that their English countrymen enjoyed. The English were happy for the Puritans to leave, so as to stop hearing them complain, and the Pilgrims, as they called themselves, embraced the opportunity to start anew in their own place, despite the hardships they would face.

Without a monarchy and an aristocracy to impose laws, and without a lower class to assign tedious tasks, the middle class found itself in a perfect situation to practice democracy. The men were responsible for providing for the families they brought with them, and they created political structures that served their needs. Within the colonies they formed townships that governed the activities of the inhabitants.

The citizens of each town took seriously their personal responsibility to participate in the governance of the town. They did not elect representatives. They participated in the discussions, and voted for the projects and the taxes they would pay-- themselves. They provided for record-keeping, and appointed clerks. They wrote laws to prescribe acceptable behavior and outlaw what they deemed to be evil. The townspeople elected magistrates to preside over courts to settle legal disputes and impose punishments, many of which would be considered cruel today. But it was what the people of each township wanted for themselves. Laws were not imposed by any sovereign monarch, but based on common law and what they believed was their duty before God to have His will-- as they understood it-- be done in the land God had given them.