British Influences on American Government

Standard 1.4:  British Influences on American Government

Explain how British ideas about and practices of government influenced the American colonists and the political institutions that developed in colonial America. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies)[8.T1.4]

Focus Question: What Were the Democratic and Undemocratic Political Practices that Developed in Early Colonial America?

1965 5cent Stamp

"Magna Carta 5-cent 1965 issue U.S. stamp" | Public Domain

How did experiments in democracy and democratic government that began in the 13 North American colonies connect to modern day United States governmental ideas and practices? The modules in this chapter explore democracy and voting in colonial America, the impact of Anne Hutchinson's religious dissent, and current debates over extending voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds

    1.INVESTIGATE: The Mayflower Compact, Colonial Governments, and Who Voted in Early America

    The Mayflower Compact

    Signed in 1620 by 41 adult male passengers during the 3000-mile sea voyage from Holland to establish a colony in the new world of North America, the Mayflower Compact established a framework for self-government among the colonists. 

    Signing of the Mayflower Compact

    Signing of the Mayflower Compact, 1620

    "The Mayflower Compact, 1620" by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris,  Public Domain

    The Compact has its foundation in the Magna Carta (1215) that established the idea of the rule of law. The Mayflower Compact asserted it was the people, not a king, who made the law. Here is the complete text of the Mayflower Compact.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • The Mayflower II: Design the First Government on Mars
      • Imagine a 21st Century Mayflower Spaceship landing on Mars 400 years after the Pilgrims landed in North America. The ship is damaged and cannot return.
      • Make decisions about how to govern the new Mars colony and record those decisions in video as well as a written document. The Mayflower II learning experience was developed by the Constitutional Rights Foundation.  

    Colonial Governments

    The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first legislative assembly in the American colonies. The assembly met for the first time in Jamestown's church on July 30, 1619. It had 23 original members, including the colony’s governor, all of whom were property-owning white men. Learn more from Social Studies for Kids: The Virginia House of Burgesses.

    Virginia House of Burgesses

    Photo of "Interior of the Virginia House of Burgesses"
    by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Public Domain

    The formation of colonial governments was a step toward democratic self-government. ThoughtCo.'s Colonial Governments of the Original 13 Colonies offers a colony-by-colony overview of the beginnings of their governments.

    Who Voted in Early America

    Voting, though not uniform in every colony, was done by about 10% of the population. Typically, only free white, male property owners 21 years of age or older could vote. Such individuals might be a member of a predominant religious group, or a Freeholder, meaning the person owned land worth a certain amount of money. Slaves, women, Jews, Catholics and men too poor to be freeholders could not vote (Who Voted in Early America? Constitutional Rights Foundation 1991).  

    In some places, women who owned property, free Blacks, and Native Americans could vote, but these were rare exceptions. New Jersey’s first constitution in 1776 gave voting rights to “all inhabitants of this colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds … and have resided within the county … for twelve months” (as cited in National Park Service, 2018, para. 2). It is unclear how many women actually voted. In 1807, the New Jersey legislature passed a law stating no persons were to be allowed to vote except free white men who either owned property worth 50 pounds or were taxpayers.

    Colonists generally did not vote for their governors, instead they were appointed by the English king. In Connecticut and Rhode Island, however, voters elected governors. Here is a list of American Colonial Governors.

    Suggested Learning Activities 

    • Write a People's History 
      • Why were some women and African Americans allowed to vote in New Jersey for a period of time after the American Revolution?  
      • Why were all women and African Americans then denied the right to vote?
    • Design a Promotional Flyer for a North American Colony
      • Royal colonies were owned by the king.
      • Proprietary colonies, such as Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, were basically land grants from the British government.
      • Self-governing colonies, including Rhode Island and Connecticut, formed when the king granted a charter to a joint-stock company, and the company then set up its own government independent of the crown.

    Online Resources for Government and Voting in Colonial America

    2.UNCOVER: Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer: Religious Dissent and Women's Roles in Colonial America

    Anne Hutchinson was born in Alford, England in 1591. She emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634 where she became a religious dissenter and advocate for women in challenging male authority. Through a series of meetings among women in her home, she openly questioned Puritan beliefs about salvation and religious law. 

    Anne Hutchinson

    Anne Hutchinson on Trial
    by Edwin Austin Abbey, Public Domain

    In 1638, following a trial as a heretic, she was banished to Rhode Island on charges of blasphemy and sedition. She later moved to the colony of New Netherlands (now New York) and was killed during an Indian raid. Learn more from the National Women's History Museum's Biography of Anne Hutchinson.

    Mary Dyer
    Mary Dyer Statue Outside the Massachusetts State House, Boston, Massachusetts
    Mary Dyer by Sylvia Shaw Judson | Public Domain

    Mary Dyer, a friend of Anne Hutchinson, was also a religious dissenter, openly advocating the teachings of the Society of Friends or Quakers in opposition to the prevailing religious views of the rulers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Like Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer held that God spoke directly to individuals, a view that directly challenged the authority and power of the clergy. In 1656, the colonly passed a law banishing Quakers from Massachusetts (a second law added that those who returned to the colony after being banished were to be put to death). Dyer, who returned to the colony in 1660 after being banished was executed after refusing to acknowledge the authority of the law (Bremer, 2012). A statute of Mary Dyer can be found in front of the Massachusetts state capitol in Boston.

    The stories of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer (along with that Roger Williams who was also banished from Massachusetts for his religious views) open a study of the role of dissent in American history and government. Hutchinson and Dyer's dissents were religious, but the principle of the dissent rests on the willingness of individuals to oppose laws and practices they believe are wrong. Political dissent has been powerful force for change in United States history, but it is often under taught in schools, especially when the dissenters were women. But the examples of the women's suffrage and women's rights movement, the roles of Harriet Tubman, Claudette Colvin, Sylvia Mendez in the struggle for civil rights, and the efforts of Mother Jones, Margaret Sanger, Helen Keller, Alice Paul, and Dolores Huerta - to name just a few - reveal the legacy of dissent that followed from efforts of two colonial women who refused to accept the status quo in their society.

    Looking at the United States today, what is your definition of dissent? There is more about dissent and protest in Topic 4/The Role of Political Protest of this book.

    In addition to the dissents of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, elementary and secondary school students learn little about the roles and struggles of women in early American society. Although mostly invisible in history textbooks, noted one historian, "fine ladies, servant girls, black slave women, middle class matrons, and native American women all contributed to the development of American life" (De Pauw, 1975, p. x). After all, almost half of the colonial North America population were women.

    Women lived in a patriarchial society. They had no rights, they could not vote, and they could not live on their own. Women had primary roles in child-rearing and maintaining households, but that picture is far from complete. "Women's work," noted Linda Grant De Pauw (1975, p. 3) consisted of 5 main areas of responsibility: "feeding the family; manufacturing the family's clothing and such household essentials as candles and soap; keeping the home, the family, and the family's clothing clean; serving as doctor, nurse and midwife. . .; and caring for children."

    Women had central roles in every aspect of colonial life outside the home as well. White women supported the businesses of their husbands, and "it was quite common for a widow to carry on the business after her husband's death" (De Pauw, 1975, p. 26). Women on the island of Nantucket where men engaged in the whaling industry were away for years at a time assumed leadership roles both in family and religious settings. Several 19th century female activists including Lucretia Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, abolitionist Anna Gardner, and women's rights advocate Maria Mitchell "all trace their roots back to the Nantucket Quaker meeting of the eighteenth century" (Kovach, 2015, p. viii).

    The Women's Museum of California has short summaries of several notable women in colonial America, including Anne Hutchinson, Mary Chilton (first person off the Mayflower), Anne Bradstreet (first published American poet), Mary Dyer (Quaker martyr) and Mary Rowlandson (writer).

    Suggested Learning Activities 

    • State Your View
      • Why is dissent important?
      • Do people in the United States have the right to dissent?
    • Design Your Plan for Dissent
      • Would words or actions be most important?
      • Would you speak out in public, march in protest, share your thoughts in writing or songs or videos, change your hairstyle or the way you dress, or take some other actions?

    Online Resources for Anne Hutchinson and Women's Roles in Colonial America

    3.ENGAGE:  Should 16-Year-Olds or 17-Year-Olds Be Allowed to Vote?

    Passed and ratified in 1971, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution gives 18-year-olds the right to vote in state and federal elections. Many people now support lowering the voting age to 16 or 17 for state and local elections or, in some cases, just local elections.

    Voting sticker
    Image by amberzen from Pixabay 

    A lower voting age is seen as a way to encourage greater participation by young people in political and civic matters. Opponents of the idea cite the immaturity of youth as a drawback to informed decision-making as voters.

    A number of states allow 16-year-olds or 17-year-olds to vote in congressional or presidential primaries. Around the world, 16-year-olds can vote in Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua, the islands of Jersey and Guernsey and the Isle of Man; 17-year-olds can vote in Indonesia, North Korea, the Seychelles, and Sudan the Timor-Leste. Massachusetts Congresswoman Alyanna Pressley has introduced legislation allowing youth as young as 16-years-old to vote for members of Congress and the President.

    The Census Bureau reported that there were 42 million adolescents between 10 and 19 in the U.S. in 2016, a number that is projected to grow to nearly 44 million by 2050. How might the nation’s political dynamics change if going forward 16-year-olds and/or 17-year-olds could vote?

    Suggested Learning Activities 

    • State Your View: Should the voting age be lowered in the U.S.?
      • What are the arguments in favor of, and against, lowering the voting age to 16 or 17?
      • Will a lower voting age create greater political interest and civic involvement among young people?
      • Would you support lowering the age requirement for being elected as a member of Congress, a state office, or President?

    Standard 4 Conclusion

    Investigate explored the first steps of self-government by European colonists that included important founding documents (The Mayflower Compact), political institutions (colonial legislative assemblies), and decidedly undemocratic practices (only men could vote and slavery was legal). Uncover focused on Anne Hutchinson, a religious dissenter who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for questioning the authority of the Puritans. Engage asked should 16-year-olds and 17 year-olds be allowed to vote in local and state elections?

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