America and the British Empire
It is important to remember that for the first hundred and seventy years of American history Americans were British—thus much of our early history was British history. It is also worth noting that much of our culture and our principles of governance were inherited from the British. Although not all of the colonists had come from Great Britain, all were subject to the rule of the Crown. The colonists who had come from England, even if they left because they were unhappy with their lives, still for the most part cherished their English heritage. With the exception of Massachusetts and Connecticut, every colony was eventually named for something or someone English. Cities and towns were named after English counterparts, and many colleges and universities, such as William and Mary and King's College—which became Colombia University—were named as reminders of home.
The metaphor of parent and child has often been applied to the relationship in between the American colonies and England, but is good to remember that we can still respect our parents even when we are angry with them. The American Revolution did not occur overnight—the seeds were sown long before Lexington and Concord, and the point has been made elsewhere in these pages that, to a certain extent, the revolution began when the colonists left England in the first place. But until the last minute before the fighting started, and indeed even after, it is quite likely that the majority of American colonists still felt a sense of loyalty to the monarch. In 1774 George Washington wrote to a friend that independence from Great Britain was the last thing a colonial subject could wish for.
England began to achieve political unity and assume its modern form under the Tudor monarchs who suppressed the powerful barons. Henry VIII strengthened the Crown even further by leading the English Reformation, an immensely popular event for the average men and women who hated the corrupt clergy. Henry’s reason for breaking with the Pope was to obtain a divorce, but he began a liberating movement that outlived him. During the reign of Queen Mary, who clung to the Roman Catholic faith, it seemed as if England would fall into a religious war, but the Protestant Reformation was too strong to be rolled back. The doctrine of predestination, the central tenet of the Reformation, might be seen as a belief leading to fatalism, but that was not the case. The doctrine inspired English men and women into heroic actions.
Elizabeth I. Elizabeth I, “the Great,” known affectionately to the English as Good Queen Bess, was monarch at the time of the founding of the Virginia colony, which is, of course, named for Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen.” The life and reign of Elizabeth I are surrounded by romanticism and myth, but there can be little doubt that she was a strong monarch, as beloved by her people as any monarch in those times, an extremely competent, sophisticated and wily woman who used her femininity to good advantage and yet who ruled with an iron fist when necessary. Surrounded by her favorites, some of whom may have been suitors or even lovers, she used her status as an unmarried sovereign to diplomatic advantage, playing friends and enemies against each other while keeping much of northwestern Europe hanging, wondering whom she might choose to favor.
Elizabeth's half-sister Mary, known as “Bloody Mary” because of the executions committed during her reign, was also a tough monarch. She retained her Roman Catholic faith upon succession, thus reversing the step taken by her father, who had replaced the Catholic Church with the Church of England. Among those executed by order of Queen Mary was the 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey, a Protestant, who had what some believed was a legitimate right to the crown. (She was known as the “Nine-day Queen.”) If Queen Elizabeth had carried out her hard decisions, such as the execution of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, in as brief a period as did Mary, she might well have been known as Bloody Bess instead of Good Queen Bess. Whatever Elizabeth was or was not, the Elizabethan Era, known for the literature of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, along with the colonization of North America, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the growth of England towards becoming the most powerful nation in the world are all parts of her legacy.
REHEARSAL IN IRELAND: ENGLISH COLONIZATION & ENGLISH BRUTALITY
In the late sixteenth century, the English established a pattern for colonization in Ireland. English used Ireland as a testing ground for their theories of colonial rule. Military governors of the Irish colonies often used brutal means to bring the natives under English rule.
Each nation took along its own peculiar traditions and perceptions for the task of colonizing America. For the English, Ireland was used as a laboratory in which the techniques of conquest were tested. The English went into Ireland convinced that theirs was a superior way of life. The Irish seemed backward but reluctant to change their ways.
When the English seized Irish land by force, the Irish resisted. The English resorted to massacres of women and children. In Ireland, men like Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Richard Grenville learned the techniques of colonization that they would later apply in America.
As Queen Elizabeth never married and thus had no heirs, the British monarchy passed to the House of Stuart in the form of James I, who had been James VI of Scotland. Noted especially for forming a commission to create a new translation of the Bible, the King James version, James was reasonably tolerant of religious dissenters within the realm. His son Charles I, however, became embroiled in a quarrel with parliament that had strong religious overtones because of his perceived discrimination against the Puritans. The conflict led to the English Civil War, which ultimately resulted in Charles’s execution for treason in 1649.
Upon Charles’s death a monarchy was abolished and the Republic called the Commonwealth of England was established under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. Upon Oliver’s death, his authoritarian regime was continued under his son Richard, but the Republic was abandoned in 1660 with the restoration of King Charles II. Charles was succeeded by his brother, James II, whose religious attitudes led to his overthrow in the glorious Revolution of 1688.
The crown then devolved upon James’s daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange. They ruled jointly as William and Mary until Mary’s death in 1694, after which William continued to rule as William III. He was succeeded by Mary’s sister Anne, whose reign lasted from 1702 to 1714. Although she had many children, none of it and its offspring survive to adulthood, and upon her death a monarchy passed to the House of Hanover in the person of George I. The third ruler of the House of Hanover was George III, who was monarch at the time of the American Revolution.
The AMERICAN COLONIES AND THE EMPIRE
It is useful to recall that until the beginning of the American Revolution (and even for a time after that), many Americans were loyal subjects of their royal majesties, the kings and queens listed below. One of the great paradoxes of Western history is that although these British monarchs were not always everything their subjects wished them to be, they ruled reasonably well, and their subjects were among the freest and best governed in the world. Monarchs such as Elizabeth I (the Great), known as "Good Queen Bess," were beloved among their subjects. At the other extreme were Charles I and James II, both of whom were deposed. In general, however, kings and queens were believed to have the God-given right to rule, and they all took it seriously and tried to serve their subjects well. In any case, it is interesting that the first modern revolution of any size took place in the least likely country on Earth. Great Britain was seen as an enlightened monarchy even before the Age of Enlightenment.
To fully understand the relationship of colonial America with the British Empire, we should keep in mind first of all that the colonists did not question the idea of being part of the British Empire until shortly before the American Revolution began. For the first century and a half of colonial history, the majority of American colonists saw themselves as subjects of the Crown, with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that British citizenship entailed.
As we have noted elsewhere, the colonies were ruled by King and parliament within the context of British mercantilism. Mercantilism, which has been defined as a form of “state capitalism,” was meant to help the entire empire, and although the colonists sometimes felt themselves victims of mercantile practice, the intention of the mercantile laws, which took the form of various navigation acts, was to bolster British trade and therefore the British economy at the expense of other nations. Governing the Empire was supposed to lift the tide of British prosperity with the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats. (Mercantilism is discussed in more detail below.)
In reality, however, the interests and needs of British subjects located on English soil had the highest priority, so that when it was deemed practical, the interest of the colonies were subordinated to those of the mother country. And although the colonists sometimes objected to various practices incorporated into the navigation acts, they did not question the theory that the Empire had the right to be governed as its leaders saw fit. Furthermore, the colonies prospered under the protection of the British Empire.
The ocean highways of the world were dangerous places, where a colonial trading vessel could be set upon by pirates or by the warships or privateers of competing nations. The fact that colonial ships flew the British flag meant that even in remote parts of the world colonial merchants and traders could reasonably expect to find a British man of war over the horizon to protect them in time of trouble. In addition, colonial ships carrying colonial goods were able to trade widely, and as long as colonial products were desired in the marketplace of the world, good profits were possible.
For most of the 17th-century as the colonies were young and developing, conflicts between colonial interests and those of the Empire or relatively insignificant. But in the 18th century, things began to change. To start with, a series of dynastic wars was fought in Europe among the great powers: Spain, France, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Great Britain, and various lesser states who aligned themselves with one or the other of the major powers. Since a direct relationship was assumed between the possession of colonies and economic and therefore military power, these wars, though focused on the European continent, or often played out to some extent on colonial turf. The American colonies thus found themselves dragged into conflicts primarily between Great Britain and France and Great Britain and Spain, even though those conflicts may not have had major significance for the colonists themselves.
Another factor which entered into the growing divergence of interests between the colonists and the mother country was the fact of colonial prosperity. As the colonists began to prosper, the spread of information through books, pamphlets newspapers and so on infused the Americans with a political sense of that to which they were entitled as British citizens. The educated and well read among the colonists began to examine and question the various theories which guided the government of the British Empire. They gradually became aware that in many ways they were being exploited, and that when their interests conflicted with those of the mother country, they were sold short.
Adding to the theoretical separation of interests was the simple fact of distance. Even as the American colonies clung for the most part to the east coast of North America, they were becoming aware that a vast continent lay before them and that eventually, inevitably, the colonies would outgrow the mold into which they had been cast. The separation of America from the British Empire, therefore, can be seen as virtually inevitable, and so the means by which that separation would take place would be determined by events that began after the middle of the 18th-century. Just as Canada, Australia, and India eventually broke away from the Empire, it is a virtual certainty that America would have done the same. Americans were different from their British cousins almost as soon as they arrived in the New World, and the hope that they might remain British forever was fragile.
At the top of the British system stood the monarchy. Although their specific authority was to some extent subject to negotiation, with the exception of the period known as the Interregnum, their right to rule was not questioned. True, James II was overthrown in the Glorious revolution of 1688, he was was immediately replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange.
Being separated from the mother country by thousands of miles of ocean during the age of sail, the North American colonists felt the hand of government very lightly. Virginia led the way in establishing a governance system that eventually applied to all the American colonies. The first Virginia assembly met in 1619, and it continued to function intermittently until Charles I formally granted the Virginia colony the right to have an assembly in 1639. In those early colonies where the struggle for survival was paramount, the details of governance were not a high priority. Over time, however, systems of government for the colonies developed more formal structures, though they varied significantly because there was no set procedure for managing colonies in the British government system.
The Colonial Governor.
At the head of each colony was a governor, either a proprietary governor or a crown governor appointed by the King or Queen. The proprietary colonies were established under charters from the Crown, and the companies appointed the governors. In the Crown colonies the governors were appointed by the King or Queen and were responsible to the monarch for governing the colonists. The governors who actually resided in the colonies, or their selected deputy or lieutenant governors, although responsible to the crown, were nevertheless dependent upon the goodwill of colonists for pay, support, friendship, and so on. Thus they often found themselves in a middle position where sensitivity to the needs of the colonists might clash with responsibility to the King.
Governors held power over various judicial officers, sheriffs, and other officials, all of whom were royal agents who tended to support the Crown. Although some governed well, the colonial governors were not a particularly impressive lot. Aristocrats with political ambitions competing for prestigious posts within the government would not have considered an appointment as a colonial governor to be a plum assignment. Furthermore, they were subject to the will of the Crown, but they had few resources with which to enforce the mandates they received. Resistance to Royal policies from the colonists, often expressed through their assemblies, could be difficult for governors to resolve.
Colonial assemblies were generally elected bodies, with members coming from the wealthy, landed classes. They often served for long periods. Because the colonial assemblies were quasi-democratic (in the colonies most white males who were free from indentures could vote), officials could not act without reference to public opinion. The assemblies held the purse strings of the government, however, and the governor could not rule without reference to their wishes.
The assemblies could pass laws which had to be signed by the governor and sent to the king for approval. The process could be time-consuming, as bills had to be sent to England, where they might languish for weeks before being reviewed. British monarchs overturned about five percent of colonial legislation—not much, but it was a constant irritant. Often vetoed laws would be immediately re-passed in slightly different form, and the whole process would begin again, and colonists soon learned to take advantage of loopholes in the system. As a result, the colonists got in the habit of doing things their own way—often as a result of royal neglect. Theoretically the legislatures did not have much power, as everything they did was subject to review by the crown, but they dominated nearly every colony. Although they were not “local parliaments,” the colonists began to see them as such. As the colonial era moved closer to the Revolution, tension between the colonies and Parliament tended to grow more rapidly.
The court system developed more slowly, and it was not really until the U.S. Supreme Court was created by the Constitution that the governmental triad (executive, legislative, judicial) moved toward the coequal circumstances that we now take for granted.
The English Side: The Royal “Privy Council” and the Board of Trade
Until 1696 the principal body that dealt with colonial affairs was the royal “Privy Council,” private advisers to the King. They reviewed legislation and acted as a court of appeal. For most of the 17th century, being small, isolated outposts thousands of miles from home, the colonies rarely gained the full attention of the crown. Under William III, the Privy Council evolved into the “Lords of Trade”; they were responsible for formulating colonial policy on an ad hoc basis. The Navigation Act of 1696 provided for the Lords of Trade and Plantations, which became known as the “Board of Trade.”
Mercantilism was a system by which the government deliberately controlled the economic affairs of the state in order to accumulate national wealth. The ultimate purpose of mercantile policy was to enhance national strength, provide self-sufficiency, and pay for military power. Mercantile theory came to include the notion that no nation could be great without colonies as sources of markets and raw materials. The British became especially dependent upon their colonial empire.
Principles of Mercantilism
Great Britain had four major aims in its mercantile policy:
The mercantile system was controlled through a series of Navigation Acts. The thrust of those Acts was to keep profitable trade under British control in order to bring as much wealth as possible into English pockets. In general the Acts said that insofar as possible, goods shipped to and from English ports must be carried in English ships. Within the Empire (i.e., between the colonies and mother country), foreign vessels were generally excluded. These Navigation Laws were not pointed at the colonists but rather at the Dutch and others who took trade away from the British.
The Navigation Acts also demanded that most raw materials be imported into England from the colonies in order to support British manufacturing. Conversely, the colonies were often prohibited from exporting manufactured goods to the mother country because they would compete with British manufactures. For a time, Virginia tobacco could be sold only in England, even though the Dutch might pay more for it. On the other hand, the growing of tobacco in England was prohibited.
The first major Navigation Acts of 1650 and 1651 forbade the importation into England of all goods except those carried by English ships or ships owned by the producing country, eliminating third-party carriers. Foreign ships were barred from trading in the colonies. It should be noted in all these acts that the colonies were part of the Empire, and thus colonial ships were British ships. Also, as stated above, these acts were not aimed against the colonies, but rather against the Dutch traders, who challenged British domination of the seas. Eventually these Acts led to war between the British and Dutch.
The second major Navigation Act of 1660 forbade the importing into or the exporting from the British colonies of any goods except in English or colonial ships (with one-fourth of the crew British) and it forbade certain colonial articles such as sugar, tobacco, wool, and cotton from being shipped to any country except to England or some English plantation in order to keep them from competitors.
Additional Acts passed in the 1660s and 1670s sought further control of the kinds of goods that could be shipped to and from the colonies and the methods by which they could be shipped. Some of the acts were also designed to tighten enforcement, as patrolling the lengthy coastline of America with its many bays and rivers was extremely difficult and costly. The net result was that the Navigation Acts, although rigorous on paper, were very loosely enforced, and the colonists became habitual offenders and smugglers.
In 1675 King Charles the second designated certain Privy Councilors as “Lords of Trade and Plantations” in order to make colonial trade more profitable. From then until 1696 the Lords of Trade handled most colonial matters.
The 1696 navigation act confined all colonial trade to English built ships and tried once again to toughen enforcement procedures in order to collect duties. In addition it voided this all colonial laws passed in opposition to the navigation acts, and the act created the Board Of Commissioners for Trade And Plantations. The Board's 15 members provided centralized control of colonial affairs.
Note: The colonists had no objection to the Navigation Acts in theory, as they were not directed against colonies, but against Britain’s competitors, and seen not so much as taxation as regulation. Nevertheless, they still found them an irritant because in practice they tended to work for the interest of the mother country at the expense of the colonies. So Americans avoided paying duties whenever they could get away with it, which in fact was most of the time. It was too expensive for the British to try to collect duties in lightly populated America.
Additional navigation and Trade Acts in the 1700s raised further restrictions, and although not so intended, the Acts nevertheless alienated the colonists, who often suffered from them—in theory, if not in practice, because of lax enforcement. Colonial governors could enforce these acts only with difficulty, and even though various levels of authority were granted to naval officers, enforcement was expensive and, in the end, impractical. Although the seeds of revolution do not begin to take hold firmly until the 1760s, tension grew between the colonies and mother country throughout the early 1700s.
The English considered that their mercantile policies would benefit the Empire and necessarily all its many parts—(a rising tide lifts all boats)—and leaders were willing to sacrifice local interests for the broader market. This policy was not unreasonable in the main, and the colonists generally prospered under British mercantilism, though they sometimes failed to understand that restrictions were aimed at others, not at them. Bottom line: When acts were passed that aided the mother country at the expense of the colonies, the colonists tended to take it personally. On the other hand, mercantilism was practically impossible to enforce, especially in the thinly populated colonies. The volume of trade so small that aggressive enforcement of duties, for example, would not pay. Smuggling became a “respectable” profession in the colonies and paid off.
Summary of Mercantilism: Economic Imperialism vs. Free Enterprise: Mother Country vs. Colony. What’s good for the Empire is good for all its parts. Note: If a country exports five shiploads of grain but at the same time imports one shipload of expensive goods, it may still have a negative balance of trade.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688
When James II ascended to the throne, the English were afraid that he intended to return the nation to Catholicism. Parliament rebelled, and in the Glorious (bloodless) Revolution deposed James and offered the crown to his daughter Mary and her Dutch Protestant husband, William of Orange. They ruled jointly as William and Mary until Mary’s death, after which William ruled alone as William III. In America, James II had created the “Dominion of New England” in an attempt to control all colonies down to New Jersey. The tough, unyielding Governor Andros was felt to be oppressive and was overthrown.
The Glorious Revolution had long-term effects on America: The philosophy that emerged from the event, elucidated in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, became a cornerstone of American political thinking. The revolution (and Locke’s explanation and justification of it) undermined claims for authoritarian government and argued essentially that men (and women) had the inherent right to participate in their own governance. According to Locke, people had certain rights—to life, liberty, and property—and the government was responsible for protecting those rights for all citizens. Locke’s thinking was invoked by Jefferson and the other founding fathers as justification for revolution and also as a basis for our Bill of Rights. Locally, the Revolution of 1688 helped propel the citizens of Massachusetts to overthrow Governor Andros.
Many new immigrants arrived in America during the period 1700–1750, increasing the population almost tenfold, a huge increase in terms of percentage. Many were non-English, including Germans and Scots from Northern Ireland, called Ulstermen (and later Scots-Irish). They settled heavily in Pennsylvania and migrated down through the Shenandoah Valley into Virginia and even farther south. The Ulster Irish had felt religious and economic oppression at the hands of their English masters and tended to be rebellious. When the time came for the Revolution, they fought the British in large numbers. From the ranks of the Ulster settlers came America’s first Irish-American president, Andrew Jackson.
The Germans came in large number, and in parts of Pennsylvania outnumbered the English. They were good citizens—hard working and peaceful, they blended nicely into the Quaker colony. They did often find themselves culturally at odds with their English neighbors, but the Germans, like the Ulster Irish, were more interested in finding prosperity than in quarreling with the English or worrying about religious issues.
Summary of Life in the Colonies 1700 - 1750