Settling the New World
The story of American government dates back to the earliest settlement of North America. Our grade-school textbooks taught us that the first settlers were religious separatists who came to America to escape the Church of England. Some did seek religious freedom; others sought a new beginning; and still others were simply attracted to the adventure of it all. A few were even fortune seekers. None had any intention of changing the world — but they did.
The earliest English settlement took place at Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Established by Sir Walter Raleigh in the mid to late 1580s, the Roanoke Island colony is best remembered for its mysterious and sudden demise. The British government tried again, setting up a trading outpost at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Although the colony managed to survive for more than ninety years, it had to contend with harsh conditions and hostile Indians. Jamestown did leave an important legacy, however: The colonists adopted a representative assembly to govern their affairs, which was an important precedent that would be observed by later colonies.
For the first 150 years of settlement on the North American continent, the king and English Parliament showed little interest in the nuances of colonial government. The Crown viewed the colonies as nothing more than a vast market for English goods and provider of an endless supply of natural resources. Government took a back seat to commerce.
The year 1620 saw the establishment of a colony in New England, when the Puritans crossed the Atlantic and landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Crown did not charter these pilgrims; rather, they were fleeing England in search of greater religious freedom and tolerance.
Before touching land, forty-one men on board the Mayflower signed the Mayflower Compact — a social contract that bound them to obey the authority of whatever government was established on land. Though the compact wasn't a constitution, it did have a profound impact on future generations of colonists, because it established the precedent that any governing authority in the New World requires the consent of the people. This was a unique and powerful notion that would spread throughout the colonies.
The Colonies Flourish
By 1732, all of the original thirteen colonies were established. By this time, the colonies had already developed a strong tradition of limited government and local rule. Though technically governed from London, the colonies enjoyed an enormous amount of autonomy. In fact, all thirteen had popularly elected legislatures that passed laws, levied taxes, and set policy, and each also had a formal governing document that resembled a constitution. For instance, Connecticut had the Fundamental Orders, Pennsylvania passed the Frame of Government, and Massachusetts adopted the Body of Liberties.
Given its vast distance from the New World, and its abiding interest in commerce with the colonies, Britain found the system of home rule equally agreeable. It was a comfortable fit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Prelude to a Revolution
Relations between the colonies and Britain remained smooth through the mid 1750s, until the French and Indian War. Although ultimately victorious, the tremendous cost of waging this seven-year war left England virtually bankrupt. Parliament decided to replenish Britain's treasury by taxing the colonies; something it hadn't done before.
Beginning in 1763, the British Parliament began imposing a series of taxes and demands on the colonies, including the Sugar Act, the Town-shend Acts, and the Quartering Act. The most controversial measure was the Stamp Act of 1765, which raised a tax on all printed materials — everything from newspapers and legal documents to consumer products like playing cards. The colonies rallied around the idea of “no taxation without representation” and began to boycott British goods, effectively forcing the British Parliament to repeal the tax. For the first time, the colonies had acted in unison to thwart Britain's will. This was an important first step toward gaining independence.
Things came to a boiling point in 1773, when a group of patriots called the Sons of Liberty boarded three British ships and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. In response to what was called the Boston Tea Party, King George III quarantined Boston Harbor and seized control of Boston's government.
Many people ascribe the following line to the Constitution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Actually, it appears in the Declaration of Independence.