Colonial Government

Declaration of Independence

Colonial Government - The Declaration of Independence

This article on the first Colonial Government of Colonial America provides facts and information about:

  • English Common Law and Colonial Government
  • Colonial Government - Royal Colonies, Role of the Governor
  • Colonial Government  - Proprietary Colonies
  • Colonial Government - Charter Colonies
Royal ColoniesCharter Colonies
Proprietary Colonies
American Colonies Index

History of the first 13 Colonies, Colonial Government and Congress

Colonial Government: The Royal, Charter and Proprietary systems of Government

American Colonial Government
There were three types or systems of government used within Colonial Government - Royal, Charter and Proprietary. However, they all operated using the following basic principles: 

  • All of the systems of Colonial government in the 13 Colonies elected their own legislature (parliament)
  • All of the Colonial Government systems were democratic
  • All of the Colonial Government systems had
    • A Governor
    • A Governor's court
    • A Court System

Colonial Government in the colonies represented an extension of the English government.

Colonial Government - English Common Law
When the first colonists landed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 they brought the English Common Law with them. The term "common law" was the name given to the law that emerged as "common" throughout the realm of England and was extended to include the 13 Colonies to be used by Colonial Government. Colonial Government represented an extension of the English government. The court systems and courts in the colonies enforced the Common Law of England. Refer to Taxes in the Colonies


Map of Colonial Government

Map of the 13 Colonies
New England Colonies
Middle Colonies            
Southern Colonies       


Colonial Government - The Council
The King of England established a council and council member both in America and England to provide Colonial Governance and management of the colonies and identified all council members. The council had the authority to benefit the natural resources of the colonies with part of the profits given to the king.

Colonial Government - Organization and Structure
The organization and structure of Colonial Government was as follows:

  • A Governor held the executive power in the colony and represented the Crown (England) in the colonial government.
  • The Governorís Council was composed of influential and powerful men who advised and supported the Governor. 
  • The Governorís Council exercised various judicial and administrative powers
  • An Assembly was elected by, and therefore represented, the citizens of the towns and counties

The British policy of Salutary Neglect lasted from the 1690's to the  1760's and reduced the level of involvement of Great Britain colonial affairs. Trade laws were not enforced which benefited the colonists boosting their profits from trade.

Colonial Government - Administration
Administration at the local level varied between the three regions:

  • New England Colonies: Town Meetings
  • Southern Colonies: Government at County level
  • Middle Colonies: A mixture of town meetings and county government

Colonial Government - The Role of the Governor
The role of the Governor was extremely important in Colonial Government, he was the representative of the King.  The 13 Colonies were governed and ruled by England and its monarchs. In order to rule the colonies from a long distance a governor was appointed by the monarch. The role of the Governor was to oversee the colony and was the head of the colonial administration.  The governor was in charge of laws, taxes and made decisions which affected the colony. The role of the governor was extremely powerful - he was in charge of colonial government which meant he had to fulfil various political duties. To help him in his role he had the authority to appoint various government officials. He had the power to convene, or dissolve the legislature. He also had the power to veto any of its laws. He had command of the militia so was able to enforce Colonial Government policies.

Colonial Government - The Role of the Legislature
Despite the differences in the types of Colonial Government all of the colonies had a legislature that was elected by the people:

  • Colonial Government and the Legislature: The right to vote was limited to men who owned land, paid taxes, had an annual income and were members of a Christian church
  • Colonial Government and the Legislature: The legislature consisted of two branches:
    • The lower house, to which the people elected delegates
    • The upper house, or council, that was appointed by the governor.

The powers of the legislatures in Colonial Government were limited and their acts were subject to review:

  • Colonial Government and the Legislature: They could do nothing contrary to the laws of England
  • Colonial Government and the Legislature: Their actions and bills could be vetoed by the governors
  • Colonial Government and the Legislature: All laws passed by a colonial legislature  and approved by a governor, had to be sent to England to be examined by the King and could be vetoed by the King at any time within 3 years (except for Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maryland who were self-governed Charter Companies)
    • To avoid the Royal veto the legislatures would pass laws to run for just 2 years, and when that time expired would re-enact them for 2 years more

Colonial Government - Three Types of Government
There were three types or systems of government used within Colonial Government of the 13 Colonies. The names of these different types of government were Royal, Charter and Proprietary. These three types of government were implemented in the colonies and a colony would be referred to as either a Royal Colony, a Charter Colony or a Proprietary Colony.

  • Royal Government definition: Royal Colonies were ruled directly by the English monarchy
  • Proprietary Government definition: Proprietary Colonies were established in territories which had been granted by the English Crown to one, or more, proprietors who had full governing rights
  • Charter Government definition: Charter Colonies were generally self-governed, and their charters were granted to the colonists as opposed to proprietors

Colonial Government - Royal Colony
Royal colonies were owned by the king.

  • These governments were appointed by the Crown, and carried out the orders and wishes of the Crown as opposed to private or local interests
  • By 1775 the Royal Colony system of government was in the Carolina's, Virginia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire and New York. See the Lords Proprietors and the Charter of Carolina

Colonial Government - Proprietary Colony
In a Proprietary Colony, an individual, or small elite group, essentially owned the colony, controlling all of the actions and institutions of government, for which they would receive political or financial favors. The governors of the proprietary colonies reported directly to the king.

  • By 1775 the Proprietary system of government was in Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania

Colonial Government - Charter Colony
The Charter Colonies were generally self-governed, and their charters were granted to the colonists via a joint-stock company

  • When created, the British King granted these colonies a charter establishing the rules of government, but he allowed the colonists a great amount of freedom within those rules
  • The Charter system of government was in Rhode Island and Connecticut. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was a royal province under a charter

Colonial Government - Changes to Systems of Government
The 3 systems of government in the 13 original British Colonies could change according to the political and economic changes in Great Britain. Most began as Charter Companies and were then changed to either proprietary colonies or royal colonies. The systems of government just before the American Revolutionary War were as follows:

  • There were 3 Propriety colonies: Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania
  • There were 3 Charter Colonies: Connecticut and Rhode Island. Massachusetts was a royal province while operating under a charter
  • There were 7 Royal Colonies: New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia

Colonial Government - Joint Stock Company
Definition of a Joint Stock Company. A joint-stock company issued stock to investors to raise money. Once success had been achieved a joint-stock company divided the profits amongst the investors. A joint-stock company organized and supported the colony through charters from the British government and while they worked with the government they made private profits. Refer to Charter of Virginia and the article on John Mason for examples.

Colonial Government - Congress
As time passed Colonial Government evolved into systems of American self-government. 

Colonial Government

  • Interesting Facts and information via the first Thirteen

  • Colonial Government history timeline

  • Fast Facts and info with the Colonial Government timeline

  • The Colonial Government is great history timeline resource for kids

  • Social Studies Homework help for kids on Colonial Government

Pictures and Videos of Colonial Government
The First Thirteen were classified in three separate regions consisting of the New England, the Middle and the Southern Colonies.  Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts Bay Colony (which included Maine), New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Delaware, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. We hope that this article on the first Thirteen will assist in your studies or homework and that you will enjoy watching the videos featuring many pictures of the colonists. A great educational resource for kids on the subject of the first Thirteen.

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