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Historical Background

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Explorers and Settlers
Historical Background

The British Colonials and Progenitors (continued)


Our American heritage is basically English, as infused through the British colonies that ultimately revolted and formed a new nation. Of all the English colonial roots of the American way of life, those concerned with government and democracy are the most basic. The distance from the mother country, the cheapness of land, and the scarcity of labor created a social and political atmosphere that was quite liberal for the times. In strong contrast to the royal autocracy that prevailed in the French and Spanish colonies, a considerable degree of self-government flourished. Social distinctions were less important than in England. Suffrage, though restricted by property and church membership qualifications, was broadened as time went on.

Arbitrary rule in the English settlements was short lived. The traditions of Parliament, trade guilds, and merchant associations encouraged the King to permit the formation of local representative assemblies, even in the proprietary colonies; the first meeting of such an assembly was the Virginia House of Burgesses, in 1619. In New England, the Congregational religious background influenced the growth of democracy, as did also the conduct of town meetings. The governments of most of the colonies were based on some form of written document, which stemmed from the issuance of charters and grants by the Crown to joint-stock companies and proprietors, and were potentially democratic in form. Conflicts between the royal Governors and the lawmaking colonial assemblies occurred early. By obtaining control of the revenue and refusing assent to unwanted taxes, the assemblies gained a measure of control over the Governors, of whose powers they were always suspicious.

Associated with our English heritage of democratic institutions and constitutional government is the emphasis placed on individual rights. Wherever the British colonists settled, they carried with them the fundamental belief that they were entitled to all the rights and freedoms of Englishmen. Not the least of these rights was that of having some representation in the branch of government that levied taxes on them. Over the breach of these rights, the colonists finally fought the War for Independence, which separated them from the British Empire. As time went on, they blended into the concept of individual rights the freedom of conscience and religious belief.

Outstanding among our other rich English legacies are those in language, literature, architecture, and common law.

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005