The Imperial Problem
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The first British Empire was the result of haphazard growth. Charter, proprietary, and royal colonies were at first established without any plan for developing a central administrative apparatus. However, as the empire grew, the need for such administration became so great that the London government launched several experiments in the administration of colonial areas. The final effort in this direction triggered the American Revolution.
The Assertion Of Royal Authority
Salutary Neglect. Between 1607 and 1763, the colonies existed as dependencies of the Crown. Although Parliament had declared in 1650 that the colonies "ought to be subject to such laws, orders, and regulations as are or shall be made by the Parliament of England," it did not participate actively in the administration of the colonies. It tried to regulate colonial commerce, but did not attempt to establish control over colonial politics. The one constant factor in colonial relations with the mother country until the eve of revolution was the royal prerogative - the right of the king to give his assent to legislation passed by the colonials; but even this authority was a gradual development in several of the colonies. It was only with the restoration of Charles II in 1660 that the Crown firmly began to assert its authority.
Bacon's Rebellion. Even as the Crown worked to strengthen its control, the colonies were the scene of increasing discontent. The Virginians, who prided themselves on having remained faithful to the Crown during Cromwell's protectorate, seethed with protest as the governor, Sir William Berkeley, exercised autocratic rule. Heavy taxes, slave discontent, Dutch intervention in the tobacco trade, and opposition to Berkeley's Indian policy finally erupted in violence. When the invasion of Virginia by Susquehannock Indians in 1675 and 1676 brought only dilatory action by the authorities, Nathaniel Bacon, a frontier settler, raised a force of approximately three hundred men, and defeated the Indians. Though suspended by Berkeley from his position as a member of the governor's council, Bacon was subsequently able to rally support in favor of his demands for administrative reform and the establishment of a new assembly. The governor's ambivalence in the face of this threat to his authority precipitated a civil war. Bacon seems even to have contemplated rebellion against Britain, but his death, in October 1676, left his supporters leaderless. Berkeley regained power, rescinded all reforms, and hanged twenty-three of his opponents. When in 1677 Charles II finally learned of the rebellion, he sent a military force under Colonel Herbert Jeffreys to replace Berkeley, pardon Bacon's supporters, and restore order. Though many of Bacon's reforms were revoked, enough were retained to give a decidedly more liberal hue to Virginia's government.
In Massachusetts Bay, the Crown intervened to compel liberalization of voting requirements and to insure freedom of Anglican worship. The Puritans met the challenge by deliberately subverting the intention of the law. In 1664 a royal commission, frustrated in its investigation by Puritan threats against prospective witnesses, concluded that revocation of the charter would tame the recalcitrant colony. The colonists replied belligerently that Massachusetts was "not obliged to the king but by civility." Such incidents led Charles II to contemplate the establishment of direct royal authority throughout the colonies.
The King and Colonial Institutions. There was, however, a major obstacle standing between the king and easy control of his new world subjects: every colony had its own legislature. Authorized to pass laws and holding strong ideas concerning their rights, these legislatures often proved reluctant to pass laws desired by the Crown, even when royal pressure was brought to bear. In 1677, Charles II decided to impose in Jamaica and Virginia, through his Lords of Trade, a system similar to that which Poynings' Act enforced in Ireland. The new act placed the responsibility for formulating laws in the hands of the governor and his council. Before the laws could be put into effect they had to be sent to England for approval by the Privy Council, and the legislature was authorized to rubber-stamp the final version. Distance, plus the stubborn opposition of Jamaica - Virginia, failing to realize the Act's implications, placidly accepted the proposals - frustrated the program.
The Dominion of New England. Plans for colonial consolidation were well advanced when Charles II died suddenly in 1685; his brother and successor, James II, organized the Dominion of New England, but his forced abdication in 1688 brought that experiment to an end. Under William and Mary, however, a less emphatic effort to extend royal authority continued. Even crusty Massachusetts had to accept a royal governor. Not all the colonies, however, passed under royal authority: Rhode Island and Connecticut, both of which had been deprived of their charters in 1687, maintained nearly republican systems when their charters were restored after the Glorious Revolution, while Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, after brief lapses, resumed their proprietary status.
The Colonial System of Government. Every colony, no matter what its exact status, now had to legislate in conformance with English law, and to accept review by the Board of Trade. Appeals to the Privy Council were possible, but its decisions were final. In the royal colonies the governor, appointed by the Crown and bound by instructions sent from London, held the veto power. The existence of the royal colonies had a salutary effect on the charter colonies, where the governor was elected, and on the proprietary colonies, where the governor was appointed, since these authorities governed leniently for fear of provoking royal intervention. All the royal governors were aided by appointive councils except in Massachusetts, where the council was elected by the lower house. Since most council members were colonials they tended to support the colonial interest. The assembly's control of the tax power often proved crucial in disputes between the legislative and executive authorities of a colony, and as a result, uncooperative governors frequently found themselves without their salaries. The assemblies' sense of their prerogatives in the exacting and expenditure of taxes would brook no interference from the superior power of the English Parliament. The one authority they acknowledged was that of the royal prerogative. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the various colonial assemblies had assumed the role of local parliaments.
The Dimensions of Parliamentary Power. Any effort by the Westminster Parliament to enforce its will in the colonies was certain to stir up a storm of dissent. In addition, the relationship between Britain and the colonies was beginning to be complicated by the colonists' conviction that as Englishmen they had a right to participate in lawmaking, especially where laws pertaining to taxation were concerned. There existed in the colonies the as yet unarticulated assumption that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed. Thus, the impending conflict stemmed from a further source of discontent: had Parliament the right to legislate for the colonies, or were they themselves the sole possessors of this right? Although the passage of the Navigation Acts seemed to have established Parliament's rights in the matter, the acts themselves contained a notorious and self-canceling defect: they provided no effective enforcement agencies.
The Navigation Act of 1696. Parliament made sporadic efforts to extend the scope of its economic regulations, and in 1696 passed a navigation act to control colonial trade more effectively. The act provided for the restriction of trade to ships owned and manned by Englishmen, for the extension of the authority of both customs and naval officers to regulate trade, for the suppression of all colonial laws contrary to the new act, and for royal approval of all gubernatorial appointments. For the more effective management of colonial commerce, the Lords of Trade were replaced by a Board of Trade which, besides regulating trade, supervised all colonial laws and passed upon their constitutionality. Although this power was great, one cannot say that it was abused. Of the 8,563 laws submitted to the Board, only 469 were disallowed on the grounds that they contravened parliamentary acts or the common law, violated the colonial charter or the powers of the governor, or worked to the detriment of the imperial interest.
That few colonial laws were disallowed indicates not only leniency on the part of the Board, but also care on the part of local assemblies, who wanted to avoid provoking the mother country. The assemblies took a more subtle and devious way to achieve their ends. They preferred to pass an agreeable law and then to violate it, assuming (correctly) that the English were ill-equipped to supervise enforcement.
The Woolens, Hat, and Iron Acts. Passage of the Woolens Act in 1699 provoked a sharp colonial protest. This law permitted local production of woolen goods but forbade the sale outside the colony of surplus production. It particularly affected Massachusetts, whose woolen production was such that it had a surplus to sell to the other colonies. Similar restrictions were imposed by the Hat Act of 1732. In 1750, the Iron Act, which permitted the continued production of pig iron and bar iron, and even encouraged it by making iron a duty-free item, nevertheless made it an offense, punishable by a £200 fine, to construct new mills, furnaces, or forges.
The Board of Trade and the Molasses Act. During the first two decades of the eighteenth century, the Board of Trade added to the colonials' grievances by placing major colonial staples like naval stores, rice, and furs on the enumerated list. Another source of contention was fostered by the passage of the Molasses Act of 1733, which specifically sought to aid the sugar planters of the British West Indies, who were in competition with the French West Indies, and which provided for heavy duties on foreign sugar, molasses, and rum imported into the colonies. Faced with higher costs, declining soil fertility, and the superior production techniques of their competitors, the English West Indian planters had used their strong influence in Parliament to get relief legislation at the expense of the colonies. Once again, however, regulation failed to achieve its purpose. The lack of any effective supervisory agency made it possible for the colonials to continue their large trade with the French possessions. The unwillingness of England's first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, to press for effective enforcement added to the colonial conviction that parliamentary will need not be respected. This period of "salutory neglect" encouraged colonial independence and made it unlikely that the colonies would tamely submit to interference from abroad.