Colonial governments in the thirteen colonies

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Signing of the declaration of independence

The Colonial Governments in the Thirteen Colonies refers to the organization and structure of the British Colonial Governments, the original Thirteen Colonies . Although each colony had its own organization and structure, they shared many common attributes. Each of the Thirteen Colonies that later became the United States had its own history and development, but over time common features and patterns emerged in the structure and organization of the governments shared by most of the colonies .

The legislature

The colonies' governments relied on the British form of government. Great Britain's common law applied to the judiciary . There was the Governor's Council or the Governor's Court , with an advisory role for the colonial governor. The General Assembly was elected by the electorate; in 1750 almost all free-born men had the right to vote. The towns in the colonies held regular town assemblies at which all free-born men had the right to vote, the condition for the right to vote was land, which most settlers had. Women, children, slaves and Indians did not have the right to vote. Diplomatic affairs were handled by the government in London, as was trade policy. The colonies settled their problems and wars with the Indians themselves, but Britain waged the wars with France and Spain.

Governor's Council

The members of the Governor's Council were appointed by the governor of the colony. Often their term of office was longer than that of the appointing governor. The first act of a new governor was to appoint or approve members of the Governor's Council. If the governor was absent, or during a period pending a new governor, the Governor's Council took over the governor's duties.

Council members could also be ex officio members. They then held this function because of their office. The others were appointed by the governor, a cross-section of the population should be made to represent the most diverse interests in the colony. The council members were theoretically subject to approval by the British government, as was the Secretary of State for the Southern Department , or after 1768 the Secretary of State for the Colonies . In practice, the distance and the resulting delay in communication meant that a member was only vetoed in rare cases.

The entire council was also the colony's supreme court. Similar to the House of Lords , council approval was required for new laws drafted by the Assembly. Unlike the Assembly, the Council was able to provide continuous advice, while the Assembly usually only met for a single session to decide on taxes and the budget or to find solutions to general requirements. Like the Assembly, most council positions were unpaid and members served a variety of occupations. Lawyers were strongly represented in all colonies, traders more in the northern colonies and in the southern plantation owners.

The assembly

The assemblies had different titles, they were called: House of Delegates , House of Burgesses , or Assembly of Freemen . They shared several features. Members were regularly elected by the landowning citizens of the towns or counties and usually met for a brief session. However, the council or the governor could also convene a special session. The right to vote was limited to free, white men who usually had to dispose of property. Since most of the colonists owned land, almost all white men had the right to vote.

Taxes and the budget were set in the Assembly. The household also included the maintenance and equipment of the militias. When the American Revolution came, it led to conflict between the Assembly and the governor.


The ongoing battles between the governor and the assemblies are sometimes perceived as symptoms of a rising democratic spirit. The assemblies only represented the wealthy class and protected the colonies against attacks on the leadership. Legally, the governor's authority was unassailable. In opposition to this authority, the Assemblies resorted to arguments of inalienable rights and universal welfare to develop a form of government that derives its authority from the consent of the governed.


  • Charles McLean Andrews : Colonial Self-Government. 1652–1689 (= The American Nation. A History. Vol. 5). Harper & Brothers, New York NY et al. 1904, digitized .
  • Charles M. Andrews: The Colonial Period of American History. 4 volumes (Vol. 1-3: The Settlements. Vol. 4: England's Commercial and Colonial Policy. ). Yale University Press et al., New Haven CT 1934-1938, (The Standard Review 1700).
  • Jacob Ernest Cooke (Ed.): Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies. Volume 3. Scribner, New York NY et al. 1993, ISBN 0-684-19611-5 (includes British, French, Spanish and Dutch colonies).
  • Robert J. Dinkin: Voting in Provincial America. A Study of Elections in the Thirteen Colonies, 1689-1776 (= Contributions in American History. 64, ISSN  0084-9219 ). Greenwood, Westport CT et al. 1977.
  • Fletcher M. Green: Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860. A Study in the Evolution of Democracy . University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC 1930.
  • David F. Hawke: The Colonial Experience. 1st edition, 16th printing. Macmillan, New York NY 1987, ISBN 0-02-351830-8 .
  • Richard Middleton, Anne Lombard: Colonial America. A History to 1763. 4th edition. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford 2011, ISBN 978-1-4051-9004-6 .
  • Herbert L. Osgood: The American colonies in the seventeenth century. Volume 3: Imperial control, beginnings of the system of royal provinces. Macmillan et al., New York NY et al. 1907, digitized .
  • Herbert L. Osgood: The American colonies in the eighteenth century. 4 volumes. Columbia University Press, New York NY 1924.

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d e f Jacob Ernest Cooke (Ed.): Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies. Volume 3. 1993.
  2. ^ Fletcher M. Green: Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860. 1930.