British Reluctantly Yield

In New England, for many years, there was even more complete self-government than in the 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 Plymouth, they were beyond any governmental jurisdiction. They decided to set up their own political organization. Aboard the Mayflower, they adopted an instrument for government called the "Mayflower Compact," to "combine ourselves together into a civil body politic for our better ordering and preservation... and by virtue hereof (to) enact, constitute, and frame much 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 to establish 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 outside interference.

A similar situation developed when the Massachusetts Bay Company, which had been given the right to govern, moved bodily to America with its charter, and thus full authority rested in the hands of persons residing in the colony. The dozen or so original members of the company who had come to America at first attempted to rule autocratically. But the other colonists soon demanded a voice in public affairs and indicated that refusal would lead to a mass migration.

Faced with 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 simply by asserting that they were beyond any governmental authority and then setting up their own political system modeled after that of the Pilgrims of Plymouth.

The assumption of self-government in the colonies did not go entirely unchallenged. British authorities took court action against the Massachusetts charter and 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 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 reestablish their virtually independent position on a permanent basis. Massachusetts, however, was soon brought again 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 that conformed to overall English interests, and the English Privy Council continued to exercise a right of review of colonial legislation. But the colonists proved adept at circumventing these restraints.

Beginning in 1651, the English government, from time to time, passed laws regulating certain aspects of colonial economic life, some beneficial to America, but most favoring England. Generally, the colonists ignored those that they deemed most detrimental. Although the British occasionally tried to secure better enforcement, their efforts were invariably short-lived, and the authorities returned to a policy of "salutary neglect."

The large measure of political independence enjoyed by the colonies naturally resulted in their growing away from Britain, becoming increasingly "American" rather than "English." This tendency was strongly reinforced by the blending of other national groups and cultures that was simultaneously taking place.

How this process operated and the manner in which it laid the foundations of a new nation were vividly described in 1782 by French-born agriculturist J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur: "What then is the American, this new man?" he asked in his Letters from an American Farmer

"He is either a European, or the descendant of a European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you fid 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..."