Daily Archives: 20 January 2013

Cavaliers vs. Roundheads in the American Colonies

From Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830, by John H. Elliott (Yale U. Press, 2006), Kindle Loc. 2651-71:

The English Civil War and the king’s execution in 1649 raised, not only for Massachusetts but for all the colonies, major questions about the exact nature of their relationship with the mother country. Not only did the Civil War sharply reduce the inflow of capital and immigrants to the colonies, but it also created fundamental problems of allegiance, and posed questions about the exact location of imperial authority that would hover over the Anglo-American relationship until the coming of independence. No comparable challenge would confront the Spanish empire in America until the Napoleonic invasion brought about the collapse of royal authority in Spain in 1808. The transition from Habsburgs to Bourbons in 1700, which brought conflict to the peninsula, provoked only a few passing tremors in the American viceroyalties.

For the colonies, as for the British Isles themselves, the outbreak of the Civil War brought divided loyalties. Virginia remained faithful to the king and the Anglican establishment; Maryland briefly overthrew its government in favour of parliament, and descended between 1645 and 1647 into a period of turbulence graphically known as `the plundering time’; and many New England settlers went home in the 1640s to help establish the New Jerusalem in the mother country and join the parliamentary cause. But the absorption of the English in their own affairs during the 1640s gave the colonies even more scope than they had previously enjoyed to go their own way. Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts made the most of the opportunity to press on with the creation of new settlements and to form a Confederation of the United Colonies of New England for mutual defence. The colonies could not, however, count on being indefinitely left to their own devices. As early as 1643 the Long Parliament set up a committee under the chairmanship of the Earl of Warwick to keep an oversight over colonial affairs.

This committee, although interventionist in the West Indies in response to the activities of the royalists, and supportive of Roger Williams’s attempts to secure an independent charter for Rhode Island, was generally respectful of legitimate authority in the colonies. But its activities raised troubling questions about whether the ultimate power in colonial affairs lay with king or parliament. As early as 1621 Sir George Calvert had claimed that the king’s American possessions were his by right and were therefore not subject to the laws of parliament. This question of the ultimate location of authority became acute after the execution of the king, since several of the colonies – Virginia, Maryland, Antigua, Barbados and Bermuda – proclaimed Charles II as the new monarch on his father’s death. Parliament responded to these unwelcome colonial assertions of loyalty to the Stuarts by passing in 1650 an Act declaring that the colonies, having been `planted at the Cost, and settled by the People, and by Authority of this Nation’, were subject to the laws of the nation in parliament.

When this Act was followed in the succeeding year by the Navigation Act, it must have seemed to the colonies that the Commonwealth represented at least as grave a threat as monarchy to their cherished rights. Parliament’s bark, however, proved fiercer than its bite, and Cromwell turned out to be reluctant to interfere in colonial politics. The colonies therefore reached the Restoration of 1660 relatively unscathed. If anything, they emerged with enhanced confidence in their ability to manage their own affairs as a result of the uncertainties of the Interregnum and the impact of those uncertainties on the authority of royal and proprietary governors.

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Trial by Jury in the American Colonies

From Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830, by John H. Elliott (Yale U. Press, 2006), Kindle Loc. 2595-2608:

Trial by jury as a fundamental right of Englishmen had been extended to Virginia by the charter of 1606, but Tudor and early Stuart England had seen a trend to limit the use of juries in favour of more summary forms of justice. The resulting uncertainty in the mother country over the use of juries crossed the Atlantic with the settlers. In the Chesapeake colonies, with their thinly scattered population, it was difficult and expensive to assemble a jury, and for much of the seventeenth century juries tended to be dispensed with, even in civil cases. The magistrates of Puritan New England, whose reverence for biblical law exceeded their reverence for the English common law, showed a strong preference for summary justice – a preference not, however, shared by Rhode Island, whose settlers had moved there from the Bay colony in the hope of escaping from the rigours of magisterial justice, and who not unnaturally possessed a special fondness for juries. In the second half of the century, however, as freemen became increasingly resentful of magisterial domination, and as fears grew about threats to liberty under the later Stuarts, juries became an increasingly established feature of public life throughout the New England colonies, to the point that civil juries came to be used far more extensively than they were in England itself.

Jury service, the holding of local office, voting for, and membership in, an assembly – all this exposed settlers in British America to a considerably wider range of opportunities in the management of their affairs than were available for the creole population of Spanish America. Spaniards found such active popular participation in matters of government and justice both alarming and odd, to judge from the reactions of one of them whose ship ran aground on Bermuda in 1639. `As in England,’ he noted, `authority here is placed in the hands of the humblest and lowest in the Republic, and not entrusted to educated persons having an aptitude for office … The Judges and Governor appoint twelve persons of the Republic and instruct them to consider all matters and documents in the causes that have been heard in their presence, and to give their verdict. These twelve persons then leave the Sessions house and are conducted by one of the other officials to the church and are there left locked in with orders not to be let out until they have decided the cases.’

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