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6.1: Colonial Administration

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    By the mid-seventeenth century, the British actively sought ways to expand their overseas empire. To achieve this goal, they needed a strong navy and a healthy commercial network. The navy helped protect British merchants at home and in the colonies; meanwhile, duties on commerce funded much of the navy’s rapid growth. As these military and commercial interests melded together, the government developed policies based on the theory of mercantilism to meet the needs of the empire. By the early eighteenth century, the British worked out a system that enlarged the prestige and power of the empire as well as provided benefits to many people in the mother country and the colonies. The system also helped set the foundations for the American Revolution.

    Developing a Commercial Empire

    During the 1650s, Parliament thought more about the commercial interests of England. Merchants in and out of the government sought ways to extend English control over the carrying trade, or shipping, to the New World while also improving their own financial situation. To undercut the Dutch monopoly, Parliament passed the Navigation Act of 1651. The measure required all goods going to and from the colonies to be transported on English or colonial ships. In theory, it closed colonial ports to foreign ships, but Parliament neglected to include a strong enforcement provision in the act. Therefore, the colonists routinely smuggled in goods from the Dutch and the French. After the Restoration of 1660, Charles II examined the commercial potential of the empire. Merchants and manufactures continued to support the expansion of trade, but so too did many of the king’s loyal supporters. Oliver Cromwell’s rule left many royalists, including the king, in dire financial situations. Thus, economic motives pushed Charles II to implement policies based on the theory of mercantilism.

    Mercantilist System

    Generally, mercantilism sought to strengthen a nation at the expense of its competitors by increasing its wealth, population, and shipping capabilities. In some ways, mercantilism was the ultimate expression of national greed. A country could increase its wealth by accumulating gold and silver. Short of resorting to piracy to steal such precious metals, a country needed a favorable trade balance. In England, this effort led the government to encourage domestic manufacturing. To enlarge the merchant marine, the government sought to monopolize the carrying trade between the mother country and the colonies. With a monopoly, British shippers would need more ships and trained sailors, both of which the navy could use in times of war. Finally, population increases at home and in the colonies helped to provide more consumers for manufactured goods; some of the growth came from natural increase while some came from immigration.

    In the mercantilist system, colonies played an important role in developing a successful empire; consequently, most European nations sought New World colonies in the seventeenth century. Colonies provided the raw materials to fuel industrial growth. In the British North America, most settlers chose to farm because of the availability of fertile land. Initially, they did so out of necessity. The distance to England, coupled with the smaller size of ships in the seventeenth century, meant the colonists needed to provide for themselves. For much of the colonial period, however, they continued to farm because, under mercantilism, it could be quite profitable. At the same time, they engaged in some manufacturing for local markets; they did not compete directly with the industries developing in England. Most of their finished goods such as flour or iron required only slight changes from their raw state and aided colonists in growing more raw materials. Over time, regional differences developed in the colonial economies that stemmed from the availability of land and labor.

    Screenshot (218).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Trade Routes in the Atlantic World | Using the mercantilist system, the British government sought to obtain a favorable balance of trade. Africa provided the slaves necessary to grow large amounts of raw materials in the American colonies, which then went to England to support domestic manufacturing. In addition to the international trade depicted in this map, the colonies also trade goods with one another. Author: Sarah Mergel License: CC BY SA 3.0

    In the New England colonies, most farmers grew for self-sufficiency rather than for the market because of the long winters and the rocky soil. However, the region engaged in whaling and fishing for the export market. It also became a leader in shipbuilding. In the middle colonies, most farmers grew grains such as wheat, rye, oats, barley, buckwheat, and corn. They also grew a wide variety of vegetables, flax, and hemp. Additionally, they raised livestock. By the mid-eighteenth century, the region also led the colonies in iron manufacturing. In the Chesapeake colonies, most colonists remained committed to tobacco production. However, they also raised wheat, corn, flax, hemp, and apples to help offset bad tobacco harvests. In the southern colonies, North Carolina turned to its forests for export goods, which yielded the tar, pitch, and timber necessary for shipbuilding. Besides these naval stores, interior settlers ran pottery shops and tanneries. The shorter winters in South Carolina and Georgia allowed colonists to export rice, indigo, and salt pork often to the Caribbean colonies, goods which they exchanged for slaves. The southern colonies also actively participated in the deerskin trade.

    Screenshot (220).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) : New England Ship-building | Regional differences developed in the colonial economies that stemmed from the availability of land and labor. In this picture, New England colonists work on constructing a ship. artist: Ray Brown Source: American Merchant Ships and Sailors

    Extending Imperial Control

    Knowing colonies served a vital role in the success of any empire, the British set out to expand their presence in the New World during the Restoration period. Through proprietary arrangements, Charles II closed the gap between the New England and Chesapeake colonies as well as extended the crown’s control south of Virginia by the early 1680s. By eliminating the Dutch from North America, the British paved the way for increasing their volume of trade with their North American and Caribbean colonies. To further that goal, the government proposed a series of trade laws to improve the British position vis-à-vis their imperial rivals.

    First, Parliament passed the Navigation Act of 1660. The measure reiterated the provisions of the 1651 act, which restricted all shipping in the empire to English and colonial vessels. It also added a provision listing several “enumerated articles” that could only be traded within the empire. These goods included sugar, tobacco, cotton, wool, and indigo. Theoretically, the restrictions helped make England more self-sufficient and increased the crown’s tax revenue. Second, Parliament approved the Staple Act of 1663. It placed restrictions on foreign goods imported into the colonies by requiring merchants to ship through an English port. The act made the colonies more dependent on the mother country because England became their staple, or market, for all foreign goods. Finally, Parliament voted in favor of the Plantation Duty Act of 1673. Designed to cut down on smuggling, the act established provisions to collect customs duties in colonial ports before the goods shipped to other colonial ports. Under the measure, the British government stationed customs collectors in the colonies for the first time. These agents reported to their superiors in England, not to the colonial governor or assembly.

    The Glorious Revolution, when William and Mary came to power, brought about new mercantilist policies for three reasons. First, the government wanted to quell the unrest in the colonies caused by James II’s efforts to consolidate royal control. William and Mary hoped to find a solution that would meet both the economic and political needs of English merchants and colonial planters. Second, lax enforcement of the Navigation Acts during King William’s War (1689-1697) increased smuggling and privateering, which put the economic health of the empire at risk. Third, after the adoption of the English Constitution, Parliament determined the empire’s fiscal policy. Dominated by wealthy landowners and merchants, the House of Commons wanted to assure political and economic strength. Thus, Parliament, with the crown’s approval, took measures to strengthen the trade restrictions on the colonies.

    Parliament passed the Navigation Act of 1696 and the Trade Act of 1696. The Navigation Act sought to shore up previous acts by closing the loopholes that contributed to lax enforcement. In order to improve the collection of duties in the colonies, the law granted royal officials in the colonies the right to seek writs of assistance to search for and to seize illegal goods. The Trade Act created the Board of Trade, an administrative agency, to replace the more informal Lords of Trade created under Charles II. British merchants wanted a stronger body to develop and supervise commerce, since the Lords of Trade failed to devote enough attention to the colonies. William and Mary approved the change largely because, like many merchants, they believed stronger control over colonial development would have a positive effect on the British economy.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The Board of Trade | Created by the Trade Act of 1696, the Board of Trade advised the British government on all matters relating to colonial trade and politics. This picture from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-1811) depicts the members hard at work in London. Authors: Rudolph Ackermann, William Henry Pyne, and William Combe Source: Microcosm of London

    In 1697, the Board of Trade recommended the creation of Vice Admiralty Courts in the colonies. By using these courts, the Board denied colonists accused of violating the Navigation Acts the right to a jury trial because most colonial juries would not convict people accused of smuggling. The Board also recommended several other measures to restrict colonial industry and trade. For example, the Woolens Act of 1699 prevented colonists from producing wool goods for export; the Hat Act of 1732 did the same for hats. The most controversial of these measures was the Molasses Act of 1733, which raised the duties on rum, molasses, and sugar imported into the colonies from foreign countries. In time, most merchants realized that the duties on molasses did more to harm than help trade. Seeing as the act largely defied the logic of mercantilism, Robert Walpole, the king’s chief minister from 1720 to 1742, chose not to enforce the measure. His decision led to a period of “salutary neglect,” where government officials largely ignored economic development in the colonies. In instances where the British government chose to enforce its economic policies, many colonists simply evaded the law by smuggling. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, some merchants—especially those in Boston—found the Dutch, French, and Spanish more than willing to help them evade British trade laws. While certainly not the only reason for tensions between the colonists and the crown in the mid-eighteenth century, the decision to enforce the Navigation Acts and add additional regulations caused problems.

    Trade and the Consumer Culture

    While many colonists objected in principle to trade restrictions imposed by Parliament in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, few had reason to complain about the positive economic benefits of being part of the British Empire. Policymakers designed the Navigation Acts to increase trade relationships between the mother country and her colonies. If the policies significantly harmed colonial economies, they became pointless because colonists would not buy British goods. Imbedded into the trade acts were benefits for the colonists. First, the colonies had a monopoly over the enumerated articles. No one in England, for instance, could grow tobacco or indigo. Second, the colonists received rebates on goods imported from England, so they tended to pay lower prices for finished products. Third, the colonists did not need to worry about piracy because they fell under the protection of the Royal Navy.

    Greed and self-interest underscored the theory of mercantilism at the national and the personal level. British merchants clearly had a stake in seeing imperial commerce thrive, but so too did the colonial farmers and shippers. With the exception of the Puritans, most people migrating to North America wanted to improve their economic position. American colonists, according to historian T.H. Breen, “obeyed the Navigation Acts because it was convenient and profitable for them to do so, not because they were coerced.” In the eighteenth century, economic growth, coupled with lower tax rates in British North America, provided the colonists with not only a decent standard of living but also more disposable income. Most colonists wanted very much to participate in the consumer revolution happening in Europe. In other words, they wanted to purchase consumer goods considered luxuries in the seventeenth century such as table and bed linens, ceramic cups and saucers, pewter cutlery, and manufactured cloth and clothing.

    Throughout the eighteenth century, the demand for imported consumer items grew in the North American colonies. The more raw materials the colonists exported, the more necessities and luxury items they could purchase on credit. British and colonial merchants also worked to fuel demand for goods by advertising in the growing number of colonial newspapers. Likewise, hundreds of peddlers spread trade goods from colonial seaports to the interior. Despite the self-sufficient farmer’s image carrying a great deal of weight in popular memory of colonial America, the colonists never achieved the means to take care of all of their own needs. So, they imported basic necessities and niceties.

    The fluid nature of colonial society meant that the elite wanted to set the standards for polite society, marked especially by the rise of a tea culture, as a means to distance themselves from the lower classes. They used their ability to purchase luxury items as a way to display their status. At the same time, the lowering sorts used their disposable income to erase the line between the elites and the commoners. Colonial women took a leading role in the consumer revolution. They had a good deal to gain from importing household items because they would no longer have to produce them in the home and could use those goods to mark their families’ place in American society.

    Over time, the large number of imports helped to deepen the connection between the mother country and the colonies, and in some respect, helped to build a common identity among the colonies because everywhere people purchased the same goods. The consumer culture effectively created material uniformity. Moreover, the expanding coastal and overland trade brought colonists of different backgrounds into greater contact with one another. It gave them added opportunities to exchange ideas and experiences, even though they remained largely unaware of the importance of such connections as they continued to see themselves as New Yorkers, Virginians, and Carolinians, not Americans. T.H. Breen concluded that “the road to Americanization ran through Anglicization.” In other words, the colonists had to become more integrated in the British Empire before they could develop a common cultural identity as Americans.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The Consumer Culture | Economic growth in the eighteenth century allowed American colonists to participate in a consumer revolution. Colonists routinely imported necessities and luxury items from Britain. With the rise of a tea culture, tea sets were a much sought after item. This Wedgewood tea set, on display at the Victorian and Albert Museum in London, typifies the style of tea set found in homes of the colonial elite. Author: Valerie McGlinchey Source: Wikimedia Commons license: CC BY SA 2.0 England and Wales

    Developing a Political System

    Throughout the colonial period, the British struggled to determine how much authority to exert over the colonies. As England settled the New World, expedience usually determined the political system of each colony. As such, three models of government emerged: the royal colony, the proprietary colony, and the corporate colony. In each system, a governor shared power with a legislature usually composed of an upper house appointed by the governor and a lower house elected by the property-holding men. The chief difference between the models came in the selection of the governor. In the royal colonies, the crown appointed the governor. In the proprietary colonies, the proprietor chose the governor with the crown’s approval. In the corporate colonies, the voters selected the governor and did not need the crown’s approval. By the late seventeenth century, to further the goals of mercantilism, the crown and Parliament looked for ways to achieve greater control while also balancing the expectations of the colonies.

    Colonial Administration

    Initially the British administration of the colonies was somewhat haphazard, which explained why the different models of government emerged. However, the monarchy needed to find an arrangement to administer the colonies that would benefit all interested parties so as to successfully use the colonies to promote the economic development of the mother country. In the 1650s, Parliament began to tinker with the administrative system when they passed the Navigation Act of 1651 but largely left the colonies to govern themselves. During the Restoration period, Charles II and James II attempted to assert greater control over the colonies. They reorganized the existing colonies as royal colonies and created new proprietary colonies subject to greater royal authority.

    The unrest caused by the creation of the Dominion of New England, whereby James II eliminated the vestiges of self-government by creating one administrative unit to oversee the northern colonies, suggested the mother country needed a new governmental policy. During the reign of William and Mary, the British finally found a working arrangement to manage its colonies that pleased merchants and colonists; the government retained some of the previous policies when it came to trade issues in an effort to bind the colonies more closely with the mother country. Thus, Parliament passed a revised Navigation Act and created the Board of Trade. At the same time, William and Mary restored the colonial assemblies, which their predecessor had disbanded. This compromise met the needs of both the colonies and the empire. Under the system, says historian Oliver Chitwood, “neither liberty nor security would be sacrificed” because “each province was to rotate on its own axis, but all of them were to revolve around England as the center of the imperial system.” The compromise would only work so long as the mother country could keep the colonies in line. Sentimental attachment to England helped in this effort, but so too did economic self-interest on the part of the colonies and the threat of force on the part of the mother country.

    After the Glorious Revolution, Parliament held more power over matters of taxation and expenditures. However, the monarchy still largely supervised the colonies. Over the course of the eighteenth century, several different administrative bodies had their hand in colonial affairs. The Privy Council, the king’s official advisers, took the lead in colonial matters such as making royal appointments, issuing orders to governors, disallowing colonial laws in violation of English law, and hearing appeals from the colonial courts. Through a variety of secretaries, subcommittees, and boards, the Privy Council handled these tasks. The Treasury Board, which oversaw the empire’s money, was responsible for enforcing all trade restrictions and collecting all customs duties. The Admiralty supervised the Royal Navy that protected trade to and from the colonies. Further, the High Court of Admiralty, or its subsidiary Vice Admiralty Courts, tried cases relating to violations of the Navigations Acts. Finally, the Board of Trade advised the monarchy and Parliament on most colonial matters relating to commerce, industry, and government. Although the Board of Trade could not make any laws or official policies, the Privy Council frequently accepted its recommendations about appointments, laws passed by the colonial assemblies, and complaints made by the assemblies.

    Colonial Governments

    The system of colonial administration set up in the late seventeenth century provided for British oversight and local autonomy regardless of whether the colonies were royal, proprietary, or corporate. By the mid-eighteenth century, the royal colonies included New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The proprietary colonies included Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. The corporate colonies included Connecticut and Rhode Island.19 Each colony developed governmental structures that resembled the structure of the British government with the king, his council, and Parliament in the form of the governor, the upper house, and the lower house. A colonial agent, who represented the colonies’ interests in London, also aided the governor and the assembly. Moreover, each colony had a judiciary modeled on the British system with justices of the peace, county courts, and circuit courts. Finally, in each colony the county or the township dominated local politics. The county system prevailed in the southern and middle colonies, while the township system prevailed in the northern colonies. Both took responsibility for issues such as local taxation, defense, public health, and probate.

    Governors, who served at the pleasure of the king or the proprietor, functioned as the chief royal officials in the colonies. They had the power to do what the king did at home without seeking prior approval from Parliament. In the eighteenth century, the Board of Trade drafted the governors’ orders for most of the colonies. These instructions underscored the mercantilist system in that they guided the governor to promote legislation to benefit the mother country while also seeking to improve the general welfare of the colony. Once in office, the governor became the commander of the colonial militia. He also held the power to decide when the assembly would meet and when it would disband and to approve or to veto all legislation passed by the assembly. Furthermore, the governor sent all official communication to London, which included sending colonial laws for approval by the crown. Finally, he appointed all judges, magistrates, and other officials, and he made recommendations to the crown or the proprietor regarding the composition of his advisory council. The governor’s council had three functions: it advised the governor on all executive decisions, it acted as the upper house of the legislature, and in conjunction with the governor, it served as the highest appeals court in the colony.

    The colonial assemblies had the power to initiate legislation. More importantly, they controlled the budget because they voted on all taxes and expenditures, including colonial officials’ salaries and defense appropriations. Members were immune from arrest during assembly sessions and could speak freely and openly in those meetings. Finally, the assemblies had the right to petition the monarchy for the redress of grievances. By modern standards, the colonial assemblies were far from democratic. Nevertheless, more men could vote in America than in England because of the wider distribution of land ownership. At the local level, the county or township administrators supervised the election of the assembly. Those chosen increasingly believed they had the obligation to represent the local entity that elected them. This idea of direct representation differed from the British system, where Parliament supported the concept of indirect or virtual representation. Members believed they represented the whole empire, not just the region they hailed from.

    Colonial Politics

    As in England, during the eighteenth century the power of the assembly in the colonies grew in relation to the governor, meaning the colonists expected lax enforcement of royal dictates as well as control over most colonial matters. At the same time that Parliament adopted a policy of salutary neglect when it came to trade, the crown allowed the colonies greater political control over their affairs. This habit of self-government stemmed from two factors. First, the distance between the mother country and her colonies mitigated the ability to keep tight control over colonial affairs. Colonial assemblies often made decisions because the time lag in communication between the two continents simply made waiting on answers from London infeasible. Moreover, in the eighteenth century the crown often found itself distracted by other problems such as the wars with France and Spain. Second, more men met the property qualifications to vote in the colonies, therefore felt a more direct connection to their government. As such, the well-to-do who served in the assemblies needed to be more responsive to the needs of their constituents to stay in office. Like their counterparts in Britain, colonial leaders engaged in patronage where they awarded commissions, judgeships, and land grants to their supporters. In turn, most colonists put greater faith in their assemblies than in their governors because the colonists helped elect or appoint members to serve in those assemblies. As historian Jack P. Greene points out, “coherent, effective, acknowledged, and authoritative political elites” dominated local politics. They possessed “considerable social and economic power, extensive political experience, confidence in their capacity to govern, and…broad public support.”

    To maximize the interests of their fellow colonists, the assemblies frequently used the power granted by their colonial charters to put pressure on the governor. On several occasions, the assemblies made official complaints about their governors’ power to determine when and for how long they could meet. When the monarchy refused to address the problem, the assemblies used their power to control the budget. Should a governor veto legislation the assembly favored, it slowed and sometimes stopped the appropriation of funds for the governor’s salary or defense measures. In the 1720s and 1730s, the governors in New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire went without pay for several years. According to historian Alan Taylor, the colonists also “could effectively play…dirty politics.” They sometimes resorted to rumors and gossip to undermine the authority of their governor and force his recall by officials in London. In the 1700s, New Yorkers exposed the then governor, Lord Cornbury, as a cross-dresser, so soon British officials removed him from office. Many governors tried to use their powers to grant land or bestow patronage to counter the power of the assembly, but their efforts rarely worked.

    In the colonies, political tension was common because the assemblies constantly looked for ways to expand their power and responsibility over colonial affairs. Meanwhile when new governors arrived from England, they looked to shuffle the local power structure to win colonists over to their policies. In the end, most governors accepted the assemblies’ demands in order to retain their position, thus perpetuating the idea of self-government in the colonies. Many colonists believed they lived under the most enlightened form of government in Europe. Like their counterparts in England, the colonists believed the Bill of Rights protected their liberties. In the eighteenth century, the colonists concluded that they were free to protest against objectionable policies and laws emanating from Parliament because they were British citizens. Moreover, they expected the balance of power to remain in their favor since the governors often came around to their position.


    During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the British sought to expand their empire. Using the theory of mercantilism, they set up an economic and political system designed to benefit the mother country and her colonies. Through the passage of the Navigation Acts and the creation of the Board of Trade, the government sought to increase the nation’s wealth through commercial ties with the New World. The colonies provided raw materials for British industry and, in turn, purchased finished goods produced in the mother country. To further their economic goals, the monarchy also sought to extend greater political control over the colonies. Colonial resistance to James II’s policies prompted William and Mary, as well as their successors, to blend royal control with representative assemblies. The large volume of trade brought benefits to most people involved in the system and thereby increased Britain’s power over its European rivals. However, lax enforcement of many of the regulations, plus the growing power of the colonial assemblies, planted seeds of discontent that boiled over in the 1760s.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The Navigation Acts specified enumerated goods that

    1. colonists could not export.
    2. colonists could manufacture the same goods as produced in Britain.
    3. colonists could only ship within the British Empire.
    4. colonists could only trade to other colonists.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Most colonists in eighteenth-century North America were largely self-sufficient, so they did not need to import consumer goods from Britain.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Colonial governors possessed the right to veto legislation passed by the colonial assemblies.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    During the eighteenth century, colonial assemblies

    1. lost their power to appropriate taxes.
    2. were appointed by the king.
    3. included both men and women.
    4. expanded their power and influence.


    This page titled 6.1: Colonial Administration is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.