Colonial government in the Thirteen Colonies

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The organization and structure of British colonial governments in America shared many attributes. While each of the Thirteen Colonies destined to become the United States had its own history and development, over time common features and patterns emerged in the structure and organization of the governments. Most of these features applied to most of the colonies.

The Legislature[edit]

Government in the colonies represented an extension of the English government. Courts enforced the common law of England. The Governor's Council or the Governor's Court was a body of senior advisors to the governor. The General Assembly was elected by the enfranchised voters; by 1750, most free men could vote. In New England, the towns had annual town meetings where all free men had a voice.[1] Diplomatic affairs were handled by London, as were some trading policies.[2] The colonies handled their own affairs (and wars) with the Native Americans, but Britain handled foreign wars with France and Spain.[2]

The Council[edit]

Governor's council members were appointed, and served at the governor's pleasure. Often their terms lasted longer than the governor's, as the first act of most new governors was to re-appoint or continue the council members in their offices. When there was an absentee governor, or in a period between governors, the council acted as a government.[2]

Members of the council included ex-officio members who served by virtue of their position. Others would be appointed by the governor to get an effective cross-section to represent various diverse interests in the colony. Council members were theoretically subject to approval by the British government, either the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, or after 1768 the Secretary of State for the Colonies.[2] In practice, the distance and delay in communications meant that a veto over a member occurred only in rare cases.

The council as a whole would sit as the supreme court for the colony. Like the British House of Lords, the council's approval was required for new laws, which usually originated in the Assembly. The council could be viewed as continuous, unlike the assembly, which would typically meet for a new session each year to deal with taxes, budgets, and new requirements. Like the assembly, most council positions were unpaid, and members pursued a number of professions. While lawyers were prominent throughout the colonies, merchants were important in the northern colonies, while planters were more involved in the south.

The Assembly[edit]

The Assemblies had a variety of titles, such as: House of Delegates, House of Burgesses, or Assembly of Freemen. They had several features in common. Members were elected by the propertied citizens of the towns or counties annually, which usually meant for a single, brief session, although the council or governor could and sometimes did call for a special session.[2] Suffrage was restricted to free white men only, usually with property ownership restrictions. Since land ownership was widespread, most white men could vote.

Taxes and government budgets originated in the Assembly. The budget was also connected with the raising and equipping of the militia. As the American Revolution grew nearer, this contributed to the conflict between the assembly and the governor.[2]


The perennial struggles between governors and the Assemblies are sometimes taken as symptoms of a rising democratic spirit. However, these assemblies represented only the privileged classes, and were protecting the colony against executive encroachments. Legally, a governor's authority was unassailable. In resisting that authority, assemblies resorted to justification by arguments from natural rights and general welfare, giving life to the notion that governments derived, or ought to derive, their authority from the consent of the governed.[3]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Women, children, slaves and Indians did not vote.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Cooke (1993) vol 1 part 4
  3. ^ Fletcher Melvin Green (1930). Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860: A Study in the Evolution of Democracy. U. of North Carolina press. pp. 21–22. ISBN 9781584779285.