Background and Emergence of Democracy in the British North American Colonies

Beginning in the early 1600\'s, North America experienced a flood of emigrants from England who were
searching for religious freedom, an escape from political oppression, and economic opportunity. Their
emigration from England was not forced upon them by the government, but offered by private groups
whose chief motive was profit.
The emergence of Democracy in colonial America can be attributed to the coming about of several
institutions and documents filled with new and "unconventional" ideas that were brought about by a people
tired of bickering among themselves and being torn apart by strife. The Anglo-American political thought
in the eighteenth century contained notions of right and freedom, which fueled their passion for a better
way of life. . The Virginia House of Burgesses, the Mayflower Compact, New England town meetings,
and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut were all early stepping stones toward a truly democratic
government. These documents and organizations may not have been what we perceive, today, as being
democratic, but they were a start.
The first permanent English settlement was a trading post founded in 1607 at Jamestown in the
Old Dominion of Virginia. Virginian colonists had the right, granted to them by The Virginia Company, to
elect a colonial legislature, called the House of Burgesses. Since Virginia was the first royal colony, it was
only fitting that they should lead the way with the first representative government in the New World. Other
lawmaking bodies, not that dissimilar to the House of Burgesses, would soon pop up in other colonies.
The Pilgrims also pioneered the way to democracy. If the Pilgrims had settled in Virginia, where
they had originally planned, they would have been subject to the authority of the Virginia Company. In
their own colony of Plymouth, they were beyond any governmental jurisdiction, so established their own
political organization "to combine ourselves together into a civil body politic for out better ordering and
preservation… and by virtue hereof (to) enact, constitute, and frame much just and equal laws, ordinances,
acts, constitutions, and offices… as shall be though most meet convenient for the general good of the
colony…". This quote, from the unprecedented compact, the Mayflower Compact, displays their want and
willingness to strive for an independent and fair government. This document made plans for self-
government in Plymouth. The compact enacted a direct democracy, in which the citizens, not elected
representatives, were the lawmakers. The ideas of majority rule and !
equal justice under the law were also employed in this compact.
As New England towns grew, there became a typical layout for the towns, which included a
church/meeting house at the center of town. While church and state were, in theory, separate, they were, in
fact, one. A system of government that was theocratic and authoritarian had evolved. These
churches/meeting houses were home to many aspects of town life including the place where town meetings
were held. Town meetings provided the settlers with an opportunity to discuss public problems. Civil
obligations became a shared responsibility. If one was a free man who belonged to the town church and
owned property, he could then take part in these hearings. The meetings had an elected colonial assembly,
which over saw the meetings, and practiced direct democracy. These meetings were essential in providing
colonists with a taste of self-government and self-determination. In "Federalist No. 10", James Madison
described a pure democracy as "…a Society, consisting of a small number of!
citizens, who assemble and administer Government in person". A November 2, 1772 Boston town
meeting initiated the first revolutionary Committees of Correspondence "to state the rights of the colonists."
The practice where local committees began to exercise governmental functions eventually lead to the
committee system still used by all governmental organizations.
Paragraph nine of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639), known as the first written
constitution in North America, makes reference to town meetings. The towns of Windsor, Hartford, and
Wethersfiled adopted the Fundamental Orders on January 14, 1639. They formed, in the opinion of some
historians, the first modern written constitution. The purpose was to limit governmental (British) powers.
It was the first American constitution of government.
All colonies contained elements of a complete democracy. Their experience in self-government
evolved and grew. From these seeds, as Alexis de Toqueville