Politics and the Economy in Colonial Life

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Politics and the Economy

The political relationship between the colonies and Britain was a mix of heavy- handed control and near-total noninterference. The inconsistency of the British approach to Colonial rule was a major factor in the colonists’ desire to declare independence from Britain. On the one hand, Britain insisted on establishing and enforcing trade regulations that the colonists found too sweeping, too intrusive, and too detrimental to their own economic profits. On the other hand, Britain left the colonies alone to create and manage their own legislative assemblies and other political institutions. This was largely a matter of geography; Britain was simply too far away for Parliament, its legislative assembly, to do the everyday work of governing in the colonies.

In 1688–1689, the British Parliament carried out a landmark political event known to history as the Glorious Revolution. The harsh high-Anglican policies of King James II united both parties in Parliament against him; they agreed that James must be deposed. A parliamentary delegation invited James’s daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange, stadholder (hereditary ruler) of the Netherlands, to rule England jointly. When they arrived in England in 1688, James II fled to France, and the Glorious Revolution was won without a shot being fired. From the passage of the English Bill of Rights in 1689, Britain was a constitutional monarchy; the monarch was the head of state, but the legislative assembly did the actual governing. This change in the form of government made a deep impression on the colonists, who were developing a tradition of their own in which the legislature, rather than the executive, was the most important branch of the government.

All the colonies had representative assemblies of some sort, and men participated in them with enthusiasm, attending sessions regularly and arguing over which laws were best for the people. However, the colonists were not represented in Parliament, the British legislative assembly. Again, geographical distance made such representation impractical. The British argued that Parliament as a whole represented all British subjects, including the colonists; the colonists argued that Parliament did not have any representatives who had lived in America or understood its particular social, geographical, and economic conditions.

One of the reasons that Britain had acquired colonies in the first place was as a market for British goods. British laws governed all trade within the colonies and between the colonies and other nations. In 1650, Parliament passed the first of the Navigation Acts, which had three major requirements. First, all European goods exported to the colonies must be routed through Britain; this allowed Britain to assess import duties, which would be added to the prices once the goods reached the colonies. Second, all Colonial trade had to be carried out on ships owned by British subjects (the colonists, of course, were all British subjects). Third, Colonial products such as tobacco, cotton, and sugar could be exported only to certain nations.

These acts constricted Colonial trade by driving up the prices of imports and by controlling exports. Traders in the colonies resented laws that cut into their profits, and ordinary people objected to paying the British duty imposed on all imported goods. The colonists reasoned that since they had not participated in the wording, creation, or passage of the Navigation Acts, they did not have to follow them to the letter. Despite British efforts to enforce the acts—including the revocation of the Massachusetts charter in 1684—smuggling was a thriving industry in the colonies. This flouting of faraway parliamentary laws presaged the revolution that was to come.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Colonial Life Practice Test

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