Colonial Government and Politics

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How did the Magna Carta, English Bill of Rights, Mayflower Compact, and Common Sense influence colonial views on government?

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All of these documents asserted that a monarch or ruler had limited rights to govern and, in one way or another, needed the consent of the governed to rule. Taken together, all of these documents reinforced the colonists' sense that they had a right to have a voice in how they were ruled and taxed. For example, the Magna Carta had given the barons a say in their taxation. The Mayflower Compact was a signed agreement by many of the men aboard the ship to actively consent to be governed. The English Bill of Rights, signed by William and Mary in 1689 as a condition of their becoming British monarchs, limited the power of the crown and guaranteed the right to representative government (if not broadly representative: most people in Britain still couldn't vote, but Parliament did gain more power). Finally, Thomas Paine's (at the time) radical pamphlet called for the Americans to break away from Great Britain and establish a democratic republic. This history of participatory government, even if it was sometimes a fragile participation, along with John's Locke's ideas in his Second Treatise on the right of the people to reject tyranny, provided the ideological underpinnings that allowed the Americans to feel they were fully justified in breaking away from Great Britain to form their own country.

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As the colonists pondered their future under British rule, there were many documents they used to shape their viewpoints regarding the role of government. The Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the Mayflower Compact, and the pamphlet, Common Sense, all influenced their thinking.

The colonists believed that government should protect their rights. They believed that government was based on a contract with the people. The government was supposed to represent the best interests of the people. These documents stressed the point that the power of the government should be limited. The government and its leaders can’t do whatever they want to do. If the government acts in this manner, then the people need to replace the government, even if it would mean declaring independence or going to war. These documents called for limiting the power of the government. It is clear these documents influenced how the colonists viewed the role of the government.

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