The political life, habits, and forms familiar to our fathers were such as their peculiar surroundings and experience had developed out of English originals. This process and its results form an interesting study.
The political unit at the South was the parish; in the North it was the town. Jury trial prevailed in all the colonies. Local self-government was vigorous everywhere, yet the most so in the North. The town regulated its affairs, such as the schools, police, roads, the public lands, the poor, and in Massachusetts and Connecticut also religion, at first by pure mass meetings where each citizen represented himself and which were both legislative and judicial in function, then by combining these meetings in various ways with the agency of selectmen. Where and so soon as a colony came to embrace several towns, representative machinery was set in motion and a colonial legislature formed, having two chambers nearly everywhere, like Parliament. The county, with the same character as at present, was instituted later than the oldest towns and parishes, but itself subsequently became, in thinly settled parts, the unit of governmental organization and political action, being divided into towns or parishes only gradually. Voting was subject to a property qualification, in some colonies to a religious one also; but no nobility of blood or title got foothold.
The relation of the colonial governments to England is a far more perplexing matter. From the preceding chapters it appears that we may distinguish the colonies, if we come down to about 1750, as either (1) self-governing or charter colonies, in which liberty was most complete and subjection to England little more than nominal; and (2) non-self-governing, ruled, theoretically at any rate, in considerable measure from outside themselves. Rhode Island and Connecticut made up the former class. Of the latter there were two groups, the royal or provincial, including New Hampshire, Massachusetts; New York, New Jersey, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, and the proprietary, viz., Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware.
Yet we are to bear in mind that many important constitutional and governmental changes had occurred by 1750. Massachusetts, as we have seen, had ceased to be self-governing as at first, yet it retained a charter which conferred large liberty. All the provincial colonies began as proprietary, and all the proprietary were for a time provincial.
Under Andros, New England stretched from the St. Croix to Delaware Bay. After 1689 the tendency in all parts of the country was strong toward civil freedom, which, favored by the changes and apathy of proprietaries and the ignorance and quarrels of the English ministry, gradually rendered the other colonies in effect about as well off in this respect as Rhode Island and Connecticut.
But unfortunately the legal limits and meaning of this freedom were never determined. Had they been, our Revolution need not have come. Monarchs continually attempted to stretch hither the royal prerogative, but how far this was legal was not then, and never can be, decided. The constitutional scope of a monarch's prerogative in England itself was one of the great questions of the seventeenth century, and remained serious and unsettled through the eighteenth. Applied to America the problem became angrier still, partly because giving a charter--and the colonies were all founded on such gift--was an act of prerogative.
English lawyers never doubted that acts of Parliament were valid in the colonies. The colonists opposed both the king's and the Parliament's pretensions, and held their own legislatures to be coordinate with the Houses at Westminster. They claimed as rights the protection of habeas corpus, freedom from taxation without their consent, and all the Great Charter's guarantees. It was the habit of English theorizing on the subject to allow them these, if at all, as of grace. Repudiating the pretence that they were represented in Parliament, they likewise denied all wish to be so, but desired to have colonial legislatures recognized as concurrent with the English--each colony joined to the mother-country by a sort of personal union, or through some such tie as exists between England and her colonies to-day. Massachusetts theorists used as a valid analogy the relation of ancient Normandy to the French kings. Though no longer venturing to do so at home, monarchs freely vetoed legislation in all the colonies except Rhode Island and Connecticut. It was held that even these colonies were after all somehow subject to England's oversight.
On the subject of taxation there was continual dispute, misunderstanding, recrimination. The colonies did not object to providing for their own defence. They were willing to do this under English direction if asked, not commanded. Direct taxation for England's behoof was never once consented to by America, and till late never thought of by England. The English navigation laws, however, though amounting to taxation of America in aid of England, and continually evaded as unjust, were allowed by the colonies' legislative acts, and never seriously objected to in any formal way.