By the 1700's people of the continental colonies of
Britain, when referring to themselves, called themselves Americans;
so did some of the French and Hispanic Americans of
neighboring non-English colonies. Most British called the colonists
Americans. King George III may have slipped into the practice,
but pretended that the colonies were individual entities,
and should be handled as such, refusing to treat with
any collective representations by a congress or the like.
George was born in 1738, reigned from 1760
to effectively 1811, for he became finally
too patently insane to be plausible, and was
represented by a regent until he died in 1820.
Perhaps George III's madness had some basis
in the unmanageable colonies that frustrated him at every turn.
There was more than a measure of lunacy
in their forms to begin with. The medieval
notion of the monarch as personal owner of the realm
held sway, an idea that was being eaten away by
the notion of a state as distinct from the royal person and
property, and a state that was to be
ruled by an elective assembly.
Worse, to his view, there were all manner of subjects running about
claiming sovereignty to reside in the people, whoever they were;
New Radicalism, the theory was called.
It seemed to be the old Leveller movement of Commonwealth days.
But since the colonies were foreign conquests, they came
under the monarch's dispensation, the executive branch,
we would say, and he could parcel them out as he pleased.
The chief methods were the
proprietorship, a one man-one colony system, and the corporation, an
evolving concept for imperial enterprises, that let a
group of well-connected men have the right to own, develop and
govern a colony, with the Crown holding an ultimate veto and
right to re-organize, while requiring a share of the pelf.
Laughable though it be, the Puritans were let to proceed to
America on promise of turning a profit. They ended up by
paying what could better be called taxes.
They were corporate tools. So were the Virginians,
those who came to be called such. These were even
more wrongheaded than the Pilgrims, who at least
explored the coast, and stood off for a time,
keeping the Mayflower at their beck and call
until they might be sure of surviving for a while.
(Only half of the hundred did in fact survive.)
The Virginia settlers came, and went, and disappeared,
and came and fled home, until finally one beachhead held,
and they came to stay.
They were corporate hirelings, no mistake about it,
no religious nonsense except for some early Dissenters
and other odd sorts, and Catholics.
("Papists," these were also called, to stress that the English
cultic offshoot was the real Catholicism.)
But as site selectors, planners, personnel directors,
diplomats, agronomists, militarists, campers, survivors -
they were bunglers. Still, they muddled through,
which shows how long the English have been up to this.
Carolina's proprietors hired a philosopher and
political scientist, John Locke - the wrong one;
they should have hired Thomas Hobbes, who understood
better the grim state of nature and human nature -
to write a Constitution. This broke down immediately.
So did Roger William's Rhode Island, which was taken over by the
Massachusetts Puritan gang, whose noses he had
put out of joint some years before.
So did the Georgia scheme of Oglethorpe, as I mentioned earlier.
Since it came later than all the rest, it had to hurry up to fail, and did
so within a single political generation.
The Penn family miraculously maintained its ownership of
Pennsylvania, where the Quakers not only ran and developed an
enormous territory, but even permitted people as weird as themselves
to come in, until they were pushed aside politically by
Scots-Irish, Germans, and others. (We cannot help but note that the
Quakers' success was itself a contradiction and
showed how tech'ed they were: they claimed that the way to govern
was not to govern and demonstrated this by governing the
best-run of the colonies for a long time.)
The other people of Pennsylvania were so stupid as to want to
rid themselves of the Penn family in favor of Crazy George. The
Crown did take over, but gave it back to the cleverly manipulative and
endearing Penn family after a while.
All of this experience goes to show that you
do not have to be well-equipped, well-organized,
well-planned, and sane to build a new nation.
In fact, it may help to be none of these.
Although the fact may be unpalatable,
ecclesiastical formations have throughout history
supplied the political and governmental spheres
with most of their fundamental inventions.
I have mentioned that the practices of representative
government and the doctrine of consent in politics were
devised by medieval church orders, the
Benedictines, Dominicans, et al.
Not only institutions and formal practices,
but attitudes and ideologies are important.
Thus, we can designate the principal sects of the
American 1600's by their attitude toward
and behavior in respect to their internal government.
Separatist Pilgrims were democratic.
Puritans and Presbyterians were oligarchic.
Congregationalists stood in-between these two political forms.
Baptists were communally-minded and democratic internally.
But they were not as consensual as the Quakers,
who might perform marvels of cooperation
while remaining basically anarchic.
The Anglicans were hierarchical and monarchical,
taking these qualities from the overall government of the Catholics.
(The Catholic Church, it must be said, could contain a
number of institutional variances,
consensual orders, dictatorial orders, etc.)
Most Indian religions tended to be "presbyterian"
or oligarchic in the sense that their rites were authoritatively
handed down to the young by priest and elders,
and efforts were made to enforce conformity.
There were other religious sects operative in America of
the 1600's and working their ways into politics
and government. The German Lutherans might be
considered similar in attitude and practices to the
Congregationalists; so would be the French Huguenots.
German Anabaptists were akin to the English Baptists.
By the early 1700's significant portions of the
intellectual and cultural elite of Massachusetts
had become in fact or sympathy Unitarians,
dispensing with the Holy Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Ghost -
in favor of a single-minded rational deity
who was ready to extend salvation to the whole human race
if only people would behave a little better.
The Universalists of the same area came along a
little later to voice the same sort of general appeal,
addressed to a more ordinary constituency.
In the 1700's more and more colonists
would become Deists, believing in a God who
preferred that his people on Earth pursue a rational and
enlightened course, never minding about heaven and hell,
or immediate divine supervision. If this sounds
like persons prominently engaged in leading the politics
of the country in the time of Revolution and
Constitution-building, the surmise is correct.
Possibly the largest of all "sects" were the colonists
who were religiously apathetic and unconcerned,
except that on critical occasions or pressed for comment,
declared that God did exist, and He would
from time to time take a hand in personal or general human affairs.
If this sounds like the average unconcerned citizen,
such is true also.
The above statements would continue to be generally
correct for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
That is to say that a public opinion poll of
the American people taken at the end of the twentieth
century would show significant clusters of the
above-mentioned religious groups
centered upon the stated attitudes.
In due course, large innovations routinize or bureaucratize.
The particular form that deterioration took in
British North America was the replacement of pre-existing governments
by a royal government, that is, the replacement of the
chief executives of each colony by a governor
appointed by the Crown, and an annulment of whatever powers
the colonial assemblies thought they possessed
that would make them little Parliaments.
The doomed governments were of three types.
The charter or corporate colony was farthest from the King's control.
Initially a joint-stock company, ancestor of the modern corporation,
its aim was to make money for its sponsors.
The company owners, granted their charter by the monarch,
would proceed to lay down the conditions of rule in America.
These were at their imaginative height in their very beginnings and
became less and less so as the pressures from England
(some would say "common sense') made them into replicas of the
English parliamentary system without the aristocratic-theocratic House
of Lords - that is, crown-appointed independent governor with an
executive council, together with a single assembly of members from
constituencies of townships or counties, chosen by an electorate of
a limited number of property-owning males.
Inasmuch as a considerable independence of mind was
forthcoming from the corporate inventions,
they were mostly undone and superseded by royal forms of
government. In 1660 five of the
then seven colonies elected their governors.
By the time of the Revolution only two of 13 colonies
did so, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The most extravagant original form of rule was the proprietorship.
The king simply granted a lot of land that he had claimed for himself
to one or more favorites, and they might govern it as they pleased.
Such was Georgia, we recall, which was given back right away.
Such also was Pennsylvania, that held out to the very end,
along with Delaware and Maryland. The others appeared obstreperous
to the monarch and were transformed into royal domains.
The royal colony was simple enough.
The royally appointed governor dominated an elective assembly.
He could veto displeasing actions of the assembly.
He could also promulgate laws, rules and orders
coming from London without consulting the assembly.
He was a creature from the English ruling class,
often unqualified, invariably corrupt - a bad example for
reputedly naive nature-children of the New World.
Meanwhile, the British government began to cut back
religious liberties in favor of the Anglican Church. And the
legal system was shaped to conform to the English model.
Vice Admiralty courts, operating without juries and
under Roman Civil Law, took over much of
the jurisdiction and procedures of colonial courts.
The colonial governments had not only to worry about hostile
takeovers from London, but also rebellions from below.
Southern colonial ruling groups had slave revolts
on their minds from an early time, and it seemed that
the more savagely they acted in the actual or presumed case
of a slave uprising, the more anxious they became.
On occasion, uprisings of free men, indentured
servants, bondsmen, and bound tenants, also
were experienced in every colony from Maine to Georgia.
The governments of Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Virginia,
and North Carolina were unseated briefly or enduringly in the
course of the pre-Revolutionary period.
Riots were common everywhere.
Strikes were occasioned wherever workers were free and
sometimes where they were not.
So much for the idyll that
the colonies were calm until the Revolution came.
Local government was allowed considerable discretion,
if only because the miserable state of communications and
transportation defied controls. Whatever the form,
local political formations, widely differing with personalities and
the kinds of groups setting up territorial shop,
made most decisions that are now made by state and
federal officials and legislation.
Whether this resulted in good or bad
on the whole is debatable.
The conventional view, which commands myth, has until lately
portrayed a New England whose townships (everywhere else called
counties) were models of direct democracy, in which all people
dutifully assembled and discussed and decided public issues.
Roberto Michels' "Iron Law of Oligarchy" prevailed: the few males
who were first-arrived and richest and in harmony with religious
dogma almost always determined the course of these myriad
little New England democracies. As the power of the
center waxed and waned, the power of the
townships (and counties elsewhere) reciprocated.
We must stubbornly recall that, also reciprocally,
as the centers of power swelled and shrank,
the frontier area and people were independently expanding and
pausing. Hence, when both the central power waned
and the frontier expanded, formal structures of government were
largely meaningless over a large scope and domain.
Throughout colonial history, the right to vote was a subject of
controversy. Yet, after a century and a half, no jurisdiction gave its
whole people the vote, nor the half of them, nor the third,
although at this fraction an argument may be made that,
barring Blacks and Reds and women and the unpropertied and
unregistered and aliens and men under twenty-one, and
Jews and Catholics and another group here and there,
most men could vote, but didn't because they were uninterested
or didn't like their politics to be known (the ballot
often being viva voce or by a specially colored paper
provided by the candidate - leaving in all then
a not negligible minority whose ballots were counted.)
If not even a third, still there were enough of these voters,
and enough of them were independent, to permit us to say
that the several colonies were individually little republics.
That is, a considerable number of persons played a
major role in choosing the chief officers of the local and
general government, and were permitted to voice their opinions
so as to influence the conduct of the government.
Unlike an oligarchy, in a republic
constituencies were present, formal, vocal, and influential.
But another organ of popular or republican government
was the disorderly demonstration. Rowdy gangs,
mobs, and crowds played a more than occasional role in
pressuring colonial governments for or against specific policies, or
simply as expressions of intense anger at the political elite.
Individually and as a whole, the colonies displayed a
kind of government unique in the world.
Counties and townships kept records, which made them useful for
future historians on these and other matters.
Their courts kept records which are also useful. The records
not only tell us who decided what happened and when
(but not how, cf. supra) in the way of general legislation,
but also who bought and sold what to whom. Thus
a patient scholar could examine the signatures of 18,000 recorded
transactions in seventeenth century Virginia, and discover that "X"
was good enough as a signature in the case of over half the men
and three-quarters of the women, though signifying full illiteracy,
and these not being the Afro-Americans or Indians or,
for that matter, men who could sign their name but inscribe little else,
and most poor Whites who need never sign a document,
once they had X-ed their indenture contract.
In short, practically all Virginians were illiterate in the 1600's.
(In England the statistics were a little better, but not in the British Isles
as a whole. In a few places in Europe - Tuscany and several Swiss
cantons, for example - most people were literate.)
The good news is that by the time of the Revolution
many more Americans could read and write, and a few actually did,
among them a growing number of preachers, schoolteachers,
bookkeepers, lawyers, factors, doctors, planters
of culturally ambitious parentage.
Literati were rare, a few of the professors and journalists,
less than a hundred among several million inhabitants.
Whatever the structures of colonial government or of their local
branches, the few who were rich (or in rare cases famously devout)
dominated them. We shall zoom in soon upon the situation in the several
colonies, when their cultural peculiarities are discussed.
Since all were Protestant and no one had to take an oath of poverty -
unlike, for example, Jesuits of Canada, Florida, and Mexico,
religious authority could lead readily to political power
and wealth, in New England especially.
Like religious connections, social connections with English families
helped one get a lucrative appointment in the colonies. Even literacy,
the possession of knowledge and education, because of its rarity, was
an avenue to political power. Personal physical durability, in a time of
generally bad health and early death, was an asset in climbing and
holding on to the rungs of the political ladder; from up there wealth
could be plucked from the public lands, tax receipts, goods in custom
houses, and commissions legal, extra-legal and illegal. Most of the
activities of government officials that are considered today to be
criminal were profusely enjoyed in colonial times.
The custom of bribing voters was well -developed at an early date and
more extensive than it is today, at least in its obvious forms. Outright
hospitality in the form of ample meats, cakes and rum, etc.,
was generally available to voters at the polls - but then,
many had come long distances to vote and were hungry and thirsty.
In Virginia they could have a ball, and bed and breakfast.
Robert Livingston's agents paid about 40 shillings each
to get his tenants to the polls; he was a
wealthy, prominent signer of the Declaration, later a diplomat.
Stuffing the "ballot box" (where there was such a thing),
intimidating the opposition, voting the unqualified,
the promise of favors in return for votes:
these were common practices. They were well-known from
England. Continental elections, though less familiar and less frequent,
were more properly conducted.
The power elite was omnipresent, as the muscle that wrought
political reality out of formal structures. At no time, in any colony,
up to the crisis of the Revolution, did more than fifty men (and no
woman to my knowledge) make political decisions of import -
large economic, religious, and legislative, as well as political,
decisions. This would give us a political elite of
well under a thousand for all thirteen colonies.
But, since the colonies were largely isolated and distinct entities, there
would be no national elite to speak of, that is, men making decisions
for the whole. There were instead perhaps a score of men who made
up an "All-Colonial Leaders Team," with potential national influence
and power, with names like Livingston, Washington, Winthrop,
Adams, and Franklin.
All of the political, economic and social illnesses and disorders of
Europe occurred in America, plus some new ones. Governments seem
to have been threatened by the mob on the streets and by inflexible
bureaucracies - the two extremes - almost as soon as they emerged
from the womb of the Old World and emigrated to America.
The widespread idea, then and now, that institutions and individuals
went through a cleansing bath on the
way to America, is nonsense.