The New England Colonies

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

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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 banished.

Hutchinson would soon become a part of the Rhode Island Colony. The Rhode Island Colony had a much different political structure than the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island Colony, believed in the separation between church and state. The government practiced religious tolerance. It was also the first colony to formally separate itself from England.

Soon, tension between England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony would result in a reconfiguration of their political structure. Their government would be replaced with people appointed by various kings, including King James II and King William III. Now, the king picked the governor. The king’s governor could veto any law passed by representatives that were elected by settlers with voting rights.

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The colonies of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island each had their own charter granted to them by the English Crown. This meant that they were free to institute their own colonial governments. They had elected assemblies of lawmakers and the governor was appointed by the British government. Judges were appointed by the assembly or governor at the colonial level, but locally elected or appointed magistrates usually served at the county level.

At the local level, the governments varied by city and town. Most of the time, individual towns were governed by elected assemblies similar to the way the colonies were on the whole. In some places, however, town council members served on a rotating or lottery basis usually filling their post for one or two years.

As you can see, the colonists in New England were accustomed to a high degree of self-rule. While they considered themselves to be English, they felt that their unique place in the British realm afforded them a significant degree of political independence. This explains their outrage and resistance when, in 1774, Massachusetts lost its right to self-rule as a punitive measure under the so-called Intolerable Acts.

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There were various forms of government in the New England colonies. There was a colonial legislature in each colony that made the laws for the colony. The males who owned land elected the legislature. In royal colonies, the King of England appointed the governor. The people were supposed to have influence over the governor because they controlled the governor’s salary. In theory, this would make the governor more responsive to the people.

At the local level, there were town meetings. At the town meeting, the residents of the town would speak about issues that they faced. They were able to make decisions that impacted the operation of the town. For example, they could make decisions regarding the levying of taxes or the dividing of land. The town meeting became a common form of local government throughout the New England colonies.

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The political structure in the New England colonies was different at different times in colonial history.  There were also multiple levels of government.

At the lowest level, New England government was centered around town governments.  These governments, early on, tended to be very closely tied to the Puritan church leadership.  The local governments tried to maintain their independence from the larger colonial government.

On the colonial level, governments tended to be partly elected and partly appointed.  They had a governor appointed by the British government.  They had a legislature with one house that was appointed by the governor and one that was elected by the people.

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What was the government of the New England Colonies like?

The government of the New England Colonies was similar to the government in the other colonies. The colonies were established through a royal charter which provided for the position of governor in each colony. The governor was appointed by the King and had ultimate authority over the colony.

However, colonists also elected members to a colonial legislature, which could pass laws that regulated the day-to-day lives of colonists. These legislatures were often also tasked with establishing the salary of the governor, which gave the legislature some power over the governor.

The main difference between New England and the other colonies was the prominence of local town governance and the importance of the town hall meeting. This was largely an outgrowth of the Mayflower Compact, which gave these colonies a legacy of self-governance.

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