British reluctant to yield

In New England for many years there was even more complete self-government than in other colonies. If the Pilgrims had settled in Virginia, they would have been under the authority of the London (Virginia) Company. However, in their own colony of New Plymouth, they were beyond any governmental jurisdiction. They decided consequently to set up their own political organization. Aboard the Mayflower, they adopted an instrument for government called the "Mayflower Compact", according to which they undertook to "combine ourselves together into a civil body politic for our better ordering and preservation ... and by virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices ... as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony...." Although there was no legal basis for the Pilgrims thus to establish on their own initiative a system of self-government the action was not contested and, under the compact, the Plymouth settlers were able for many years to conduct their own affairs without any outside direction or interference.

A similar situation developed in Massachusetts, where the Massachusetts Bay Company had been given the right to govern. The company moved bodily to America with its charter, and thus full authority rested in the hands of persons residing in the colony. At first the dozen or so original members of the company who had come to America attempted to rule autocratically. But soon the other colonists demanded a voice in public affairs and indicated that a refusal to grant this voice would lead to a mass migration to some other area. In the face of this threat the company members yielded, and control of the government passed to elected representatives. Subsequent New England colonies - New Haven, Rhode Island, and Connecticut - also succeeded in becoming self-governing. They did so simply by taking the position that they were beyond any government authority and then setting up their own political system modeled after that of the Pilgrims of New Plymouth.

The large degree of self-government which the colonies exercised did not go entirely unchallenged by British authorities. Court action was taken against the Massachusetts charter; in 1684, it was annulled. Then all the New England colonies were brought under royal control with complete authority vested in an appointive governor. The colonists strenuously objected to this turn of events and, after the Revolution of 1688 in England which resulted in the overthrow of James II, they drove out the royal governor. Rhode Island and Connecticut, which now included the colony of New Haven, were able to re-establish on a permanent basis their virtually independent position. Massachusetts, however, was soon again brought back under royal authority, but this time the people were given a share in the government. As in the case of other colonies, this "share" was gradually extended until it became virtual dominance, effective use being made here as elsewhere of control over finances. Still, governors were continually instructed to force adherence to policies which conformed to overall English interests. At the same time, the English Privy Council exercised a right of review of colonial legislation. The colonists, however, proved very adept at getting around these restraints whenever they affected their basic interests.

In the same way, the colonists found it generally possible to evade British attempts to regulate their external relations, particularly commercial relations, when it seemed in their interest to do so. Beginning in 1651, the English government from time to time passed laws regulating certain aspects of the commercial and general economic life of the colonies. Some of these were beneficial to America, but most favored England at America's expense. Generally, the colonists ignored those that were most detrimental. The British occasionally aroused themselves and tried to secure better enforcement, but efforts along these lines were invariably short-lived, the authorities quickly falling back into a policy of "salutary neglect."

The large measure of political independence enjoyed by the colonies naturally resulted in their growing away from Britain in their becoming increasingly "American" rather than "English." And this tendency was strongly reinforced by the blending of other national groups and cultures which was simultaneously taking place. How this process operated and the manner in which. it laid the foundations of a new nation was vividly described in 1782 by that shrewd French husbandman, J. Hector St. John Crévecoeur. "What then is the American, this new man?" he asked in his Letters from an American Farmer.

"He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you find in no other country. ... I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds...."