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History of American Government 103: The Early Colonial Period

During the Colonial period, Americans established a notion of limited government. In 1630 the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established and by 1732 all 13 of the original colonies were in place. The notion of limited government was fostered by the great distance between England and the Americas. The early colonists were given a large degree of freedom to self govern because of this. While in theory, Britain ruled, in practicality, the colonists ruled themselves.

The 'Fundamental Orders of Connecticut' were adopted into law in 1639, and in 1641, 'The Massachusetts Body of Liberties' [providing for the protection of individual rights] was passed into law. 1682 saw the 'Pennsylvania Frame Government,' and the 'Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges' emerged in 1701.

The Colonial period of American history lasted for 150 years and gave the settlers an opportunity acquire enough political experience that when they decided to declare independence in 1776, they were quite prepared.

King George III took the throne in 1760, and under the advice of his policy advisers began imposing taxes on the colonies to help pay for the French Indian War [1756-1763].

In 1764 he passed a sugar tax which angered the colonists and in 1765, he angered them further with the stamp tax which was soon followed by the notorious Boston Tea Party [in which the colonists dressed up as Native Americans and dumped a ship load of tea, 350 chests, into the Boston Harbor to protest the taxes]. The stamp tax was repealed a year later.

Parliament continued to try and raise revenue by taxing the colonists [who'd by then grown accustomed to self governance] and the colonists continued boycotting British products. In 1774 the Boston Harbor was closed because of 'Intolerable acts,' and the government of Massachusetts was placed under direct British control.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives contacted the other colonies and requested them to send delegates to form a congress. All of the colonies except Georgia sent representatives and it was decided that they would send a petition to King George expressing their grievances. They also decided that all the colonies should raise their own armies and boycott British products. This was the First Continental Congress held on 5 September, 1774, at Carpenter's Hall.

The British government condemned this as an open act of rebellion.

The First Continental Congress decided that each town should establish a committee that would see who conducted trade with Britain and report them to the press.

The Second Continental Congress, including Georgia this time, met in 1775 with the primary purpose of establishing an army. Fighting had already broken out between Britain and the colonies–so they decided that the militia that had formed around Boston would be the army and George Washington should be their commander.

Initially, the Congress wanted to keep relations with Britain, stating specifically that they did not want to break away and establish individual states. The fighting between the British and the colonists made conditions intolerable and it became impossible for the colonists to not fight Britain and claim independence.

In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote a best selling pamphlet called 'Common Sense,' which read:

"A government of our own is our natural right: and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer, to form a constitution of our own in a cool and deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting even to time and chance."

This was not a new idea. Talk of this sort circulated throughout the land, but it was the wording of the pamphlet, in simple plain English, yet almost poetic with its simplicity, that caused it to be a best seller. Paine's contemporaries saw the logic of his position.

April 6, 1776, the Second Continental Congress decided that each colony should commence trade with all nations except for Britain. In may of 1776, they declared that each state should set up its own governing body unconnected to Britain, and in July, the colonists declared their independence.

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